Friday, September 21, 2012

On Two Readings and Five Writers

That's me after I shaved one half of my head. It had been growing out so long. I had this reading with Dodie Bellamy and Francesca Lisette coming up at Woolsey Heights (thanks to Andrew Kenower for inviting me!) and for whatever reason, if I don't feel like I look my best, I won't be my best, and so forth. It just leads to me feeling insecure. Dodie had promised me that the audience would be receptive to my work so I don't know why I would be so nervous. I guess, it's because never before any reading had I felt everyone in the audience would be a better writer/reader than me. That must sound silly. This would be my audience so I wanted to impress them. Any sign of me being a fraud and they would sense it immediately. Maybe I should think about why I don't have a certain confidence in myself when I'm in a room of people whom I feel are my peers. I remember a discussion B and I had where, this was my impression at least, she just wanted me to shout into the phone, "Because I'm the best!" Of course, maybe it's not about me being the best. Naturally, I am not trying to be better than the audience or my fellow readers - about Francesca and Dodie's readings in a minute. I just want to be among the many who people like and appreciate. Is it embarrassing to admit to such an ambition? I don't know. Anti-capitalist feelings pull me one direction and tell me to eschew popularity and capital and all of that. Why am I writing, really, if all I want is to be loved? Isn't writing to be loved a perfectly good reason to write? I think Rachel Hyman from Banango Lit posed this question on her Facebook and I tried to answer it sincerely.

There is a feeling in me that I began to write stories to receive the attention. I remember in pre-school or perhaps early elementary signing up to read a story in front of the class. My memory now tells me I was doing it because I wanted everyone to like me. This goes to all kinds of questions about why we write and so on. What is writings purpose? Sorry, I can hear people yawning and saying, Oh god! after that question. I guess I stopped asking that question when I was in undergrad. I don't think writing needs a purpose. I will show my philosophical leanings here and say nothing has a purpose. Everything just is or becomes.

In any case, when I gave my reading with Dodie and Francesca, I was extremely nervous. I had chosen the end of the first part of my book - the part that is contemporary. It's all about sex and death and the main characters d/evolving into their chosen wild nature. It's my favorite part of the story and I'm really happy when I read it. I also pulled out a chunk of the second part of the book - the part about Catherine of Siena. I had never read anything from this story and I figured a receptive audience would be willing to go with me to 14th-century Italy. The best comment after I read was, "It's like Twilight, but good."

Francesca Lisette read after me. She's from England, and I'm not afraid to admit, I'm a sucker for accents. Isn't everybody? It's so easy to listen to someone who does not sound like you. It may mean something else to about being infatuated with imperial power but... Francesca's reading was hyper and relevant. She created these humorous moments for us and everyone laughed and then sped along to another image. I loved it. If I had had some money at the time I would have bought one of her books she had with her.

Then Dodie read. I think this was my favorite reading of Dodie's. Perhaps only because she was reading absolutely new work. Since I'm such a fan of hers I'm always pretty familiar with what's happening, but this time she was reading from her new book about (among other things) cults. I had heard her speak about the book but never any actual prose. So I was anticipating this for a while. As I watched her read, I realized that Dodie is pretty much a rockstar. She is such a master at delivering her writing. I found myself tearing up a bit because I was lucky enough to be her student. I wondered how many readings Dodie has given and how long it took for her to become so good at it? Maybe this is embedded into Dodie's writing but her readings feel as if she is merely speaking to you one on one, telling the most interesting and wild story - sometimes about herself - and at times you're laughing and at others you're flowing in the rhythm of her images. Because Dodie just published a book about a recent romantic relationship, I'm sure everyone has a good idea of what character "Dodie's" life has been like. But for this new book, Dodie the author is going back to a completely different time and for me it's enlightening to hear one of your favorite authors open up about other times in their life.

I don't remember if my reading was before or after Kevin and Rob's. Rob Halpern was my first creative writing teacher at UCSC - that's him to the left. I've only seen him a few times since that first quarter, but we've emailed quite a few times. I got to the reading a little late. All the seats were taken. Rob was standing up. I think Kevin was standing too. Rob said, And there's Jason. Then the audience turned and looked at me. I sat on the ground close to the wall. Rob read first from Music For Porn. I had heard about this book for a while but I think it just recently was published. I think what I love most about Rob's reading is the sound of his voice. The cadence of his words, obviously his images, his earnestness. I've always found his voice and his writing to have a particular type of weight to which I aspire. The interesting thing is it's been nearly 12 years since I first met Rob and he still looks the same to me. I don't know how much different I look but I know the student I was then does not resemble me now. I scratch my head now thinking how Rob could have recognized some small hope in the awful stories I wrote for him. Maybe he just saw the philosophical issues I was grappling with and then knew to offer me some help. Who knows. If I read my own stories now as a teacher, I probably would be embarrassed for the student.

Then came Kevin - he's there to the left standing, Dodie right in front of him. Like Dodie, Kevin reads as if he is speaking to you one on one. Or at least that is how I hear it. He appears so relaxed, his storytelling feels direct and somewhat classic. His new book Spreadeagle seems complicated however, if only because he had to break from the reading to explain a character or something. This wasn't a problem at all for me because I love when the curtain is drawn away from the book and the author fills us in. I'm having this image come to me now of Kevin as Willy Wonka. Not the Johnny Depp version - though I love that version too. There's Kevin leading us into his vast factory and stopping in all the different rooms to explain the alien machinery and the little men who keep it all running.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Big Awesome Miraculous America

and the picture to the right is me at my graduation from CCA. I didn't mean to align my fist so evenly with the flag; it just turned out that way. Though I liked wearing the gown and the silly hat, the graduation was a little dull. The school crammed all the graduates off to the side of the stage, behind large wooden beams. I could barely see the audience or the speakers. It was very hot. I sat with two peers whom I am friends with but we could only entertain ourselves for so long. I don't even remember the main speaker's name now, but I wasn't impressed. Some representative from CCA introduced this main speaker by listing all the reasons we should be impressed by him. He had done a lot of things; like inventing the first laptop or something like that. Then this main speaker gets up and proceeds to give us his basic life story... including his accomplishments again. He hadn't come from some impoverished background or anything interesting. He was just a man who made good on his talents and now he was here at CCA receiving an honorary degree. He didn't have to pay 100k for his I guess. I'm sure he's fine person and it's good he's done what he's done, but I didn't feel inspired by his speech and let's face it, that's what these speeches are for. The rally your reserves! sort of speech. I know you've been through a lot and never doubt how important your art is to the world. Look at me! I invented the laptop for chrissakes! Ok. Thanks. I've never doubted why becoming writer was important. Just wondering if other people care. I think I've written about this before. Anyway, I guess it's not really this guy's job to get me excited about the future. That's my job. But still. It was hot. I would have been happy if he ended with CLEAR EYES FULL HEARTS. And we would yell back CAN'T LOSE.

A while ago I bought some Google offer deal groupon thing for Green Apple Books. I used it to buy David Graeber's Debt from Melville House. My teacher Miranda Mellis recommended I read it as part of my research for my next book - which I guess I should call another novel. So yes, I'm writing another novel. Anyway, Debt just blew me away. I read it in a week I think. Maybe parts of his book are obvious to others, but not to me. He surveys a few economics text books and shows how they falsely claim (and by claim I mean teach) that ancient peoples bartered and then invented money. Wrong. Credit existed before money and rarely, if ever, did people barter. He sets up credit as a moral dilemma. Guess which side he comes down on? It's not the banks. It's hard not to read the book, look at the world around us, and then wonder why things aren't changing. I think he even altered parts of my brain, how I view transactions, human and financial. I feel this is a rare thing these days. My brain being significantly altered does not happen too frequently these days. The paradigms up in my skull rarely shift but in regards to Debt the paradigm shifted. It was the perfect book to read for my next project and I took a lot of notes for the THING.

Not too long ago I also gave a reading as part of The Grinder Reading Series at the Telegraph Cafe here in Oakland. It was fun. The picture to the left I took right when I got off the bus to head to the reading. I was on the bus and all these teenagers started running by me and jaywalking across the street. Ahead of me I heard the screams of hundreds of young girls and boys, yelling and crying. I thought, Wow, I'm getting popular. All these people are coming to my reading? Of course, I knew this wasn't true; I just thought it because it seemed like a funny thought to have. So I catch up to this horde of teen-dom and realize all these girls and boys are screaming after some British boy band called One Direction. The energy level was insane. I could literally feel the VIBES floating in the air and I thought, How exciting! I wanted to shout at these busses too! Who are One Direction? I asked some crusty Oakland cyclists standing off to the sides with their bikes. They shrugged their shoulders. Then a parent told me they were a boy band, and she shrugged her shoulders like I Don't Know Either. I kept walking past the crowd and got to the reading.

I felt a little funny at first because 1) I had no book to sell 2) the reading was outdoors 3) I didn't know anyone too well. But, quickly, I realized it didn't matter if I had a book to sell, and the sun was nice, and then the organizer of the series Jason Schenheit, a SFSU writing pal, came up to me and gave me a big hug. I felt good then. I was welcomed. Obviously, I was never around for The Beats, but I had the impression this was a beat type audience. They talked back to the open mic readers and laughed and reacted to what was being read. Oh man, I thought, usually people just sit quietly and listen to what I say. Is this going to be like stand-up? Will I have to make witty banter, etc? After two readers I was up, as a featured reader. I guess this made me a little more important than the open mic'ers. I read three short works. The first probably worked the best because they were collections of random topics where I unbelievably (to myself) made some witty observations. I usually don't find myself too witty. But, the pieces worked and people laughed. Then the second work didn't work so well, at least not all the time. It had to do with my last name and how I don't say it in Spanish. JIM instead of HIM. I wasn't feeling the vibes when I read it. Like I was offending everyone. Maybe not. The last piece worked because I talked about Jodie Foster and attributed some fake quote to her. I guess everyone likes Jodie Foster.

I didn't stay too long after I read because I had forgotten to bring a sweater or jacket and when the sun went down, it became cold and windy. I hopped back on the bus home. It was a precision strike, I thought. I just went in there, read my stuff and got out. I wondered if anyone would remember me. Maybe they would, right? Eventually they'll see me somewhere. On a bookshelf or another reading and they will say, Hey, I remember you from that reading! Finally, I thought, it was so nice what Jason S said to me. He said, it was good to have someone at the reading with my kind of caliber. How amazing! I have caliber! I have caliber!

So, now, I'm finishing up Kevin Killian's Impossible Princess (one story left) and it's amazing. I can't help but wish I had discovered KK and the rest of New Narrative before college. I think some things would have been different - as far as writing style is concerned. Also, I'm finishing up Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction. I guess I liked Less Than Zero. I definitely liked American Psycho (sometimes). I guess I prefer the movie, well, Christian Bale anyway. There are things to appreciate about RULES. It doesn't have a typical narrative arc. That's always pleasing. Like my best friend, Jason, said about it though, I just can't buy into his cynic view of the world. And I agree. Everything isn't so bad as Ellis believes. Then again, if you read Graeber's book you

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spring Beats

I'm listening to my lastfm library right now. I will write each song that comes on while I prepare this blog post. Right now, Best Coast's "Happy". On March 30th I read with my fellow graduating writers at our Word. World. celebration. My family came from out of town. B was there. Two of my closest friends showed up. Three of my other closest friends showed up right when I was wrapping up my reading. I tried to dress like a priest for my reading because I thought my story was like a sermon. Before the reading began I ran into my dad and his girlfriend. I was really out of it and nervous but glad to see them. I flashed back to this memory of my dad coming out of his room (our room) at our Cottage Way house. I was about 9 or 10. He was getting dressed to go out dancing or something. He came out into the living room and threw his arms out and said, "Do I look sharp?" He smelled nice and he looked really cool, I remember thinking. So now every time I dress nice I think of my dad then and I either say "do I look sharp?" or I think it in my head. When I ran into my dad before the reading I wanted to ask him if I looked sharp, but I was so nervous and out of it, I forgot. B was also down the hall and I didn't want to keep her waiting for me. I don't know why I worried about that. My dad sat me down and pulled out a gift: a powered messenger bag with all sorts of bells and whistles that only recently have I figured out how to use. My dad's voice became sort of solemn and serious. He said he was giving me the bag as a way to say congratulations for graduating (though I haven't actually graduated yet) and just to say 'good job'. I flashed back to another time when I was a sophomore in high school. It was in the fall, at the cross country section championships. It was raining. (Ride's "Leave Them All Behind") My dad and I stood beneath a hallway near the race course. He pulled out a white envelope and inside there was a small necklace with a gold medallion of some saint, I forget now, and a letter my dad had written. It said something like he was really proud of me and that the medal belonged to my (deceased) grandpa. Then my dad pinned the medal to my running shorts and said that when I ran my grandpa would be with me. I ended up winning that race and the sophomore championship. I'm pretty sure this is the only race I've won.

All of us readers sat in a row off to the side of the audience so I got to stare at my family and friends as they listened to the other readers. When I took the stage I was still very nervous. The lights were very bright; I could only see the very far left side of the audience which was only 3 or 4 people... all former peers incidentally. But, that was good I could see them because I felt like I was speaking to my friends, though because of my story I mostly had to read from my pages. I read my story in a way that I've never read before and I think it was much different than the other readers. I didn't know at the time if the audience would pick up on this or not, or if it was just something I sensed. This particular story cannot be read so much as performed. After I was finished I talked to Kevin Killian (one of the teachers here that I haven't worked with yet... or ever will since the year is over, but maybe some day) about the performative aspect of my reading. He liked all the hand motions I made and even suggested I turn it into a type of dance. We were speaking mostly in jest, I think. Kevin brought over Dodie (Bellamy) and we all shared a laugh about the little dance Kevin and I made up for my story. It seemed that most people liked my reading and they really enjoyed the hand motions that I made while reading. (Cut Copy's "Where I'm Going") Some people thought what I was doing was funny and some thought it was serious. Thankfully, B knew that I am mostly always serious and earnest in my writing and understood, later, my frustration that people laughed while I read - though I guess I have to admit I did throw in some 'funny' parts. On the other hand, people laughed at parts which I don't think are funny. The biggest surprise was that here I thought I was explaining this extremely complicated concept and I was really worried people would not understand me, but it seemed as if people did understand what I was reading and that made me feel good because part of the project of this story is to be understood, what it means to understand others, to be understood by others. And then all of the sudden, here I was, after the reading, and it turns out I made sense to people! In classes, a few days after the reading, classmates even reference some of the language from my story in class - like I had introduced this whole new way of talking about things. Obviously, I didn't, but it feels good when people talk about what you have written, especially when they don't have to or aren't forced to by the workshop environment. (Jonsi's "Animal Arithmetic" - my favorite song of 2010)

Earlier today, M Kitchell (a writer who posts on HTMLGiant often) posted a question about Marie Calloway's new story "Jeremy Lin". So I read the new story and actually enjoyed it more than "Adrien Brody"... though it essentially isn't a "story" so much as a blog post. I thought, this is just a blog post, then I thought about how my mentor here, Dodie, her latest book came from a blog, and everything Dodie was trying to do with "blogging" and being female (I'm grossly over-simplifying Dodie's aims, but please forgive me!). I thought, maybe I shouldn't deride Calloway for publishing a blog post because then that would just be like discriminating against Dodie's book, which I absolutely love. Maybe, then, I'm just being biased and since Calloway is younger than me, and more popular, and hangs out with Tao Lin, and gives readings in New York, and isn't Dodie, I just don't like her. But, then, Calloway, in her new story, doesn't even seem to be aware of what she's doing or how she's doing it, and it all seems so contrived (in a bad way). So I guess I don't know. I like Calloway's new story more than the previous, but still don't understand, again still, why everyone's talking about her writing. This all comes, also, from being part of the 'intellectual n+1-loving' writers who find value in discovering good/bad writing... which apparently Tao Lin hates or dislikes... (Health's "USA Boys"), but Calloway, I'm assuming, doesn't mind. Whatever.

So, now, my thesis has been turned in, and I meet in early May with my committee and then they will tell me if I earned my MFA or not. Barring some anti-miracle, they will say I earned it. (Mirrors' "Lights and Offering") Then, what? The book becomes a book and not a thesis or something else. My other mentor Miranda Mellis challenged me to write a cover letter which I will then, conceivably, send out to agents or houses. When Miranda issued the challenge we talked about what my book is about and it was very enlightening to me. Also, it was the first time I expressed to someone other than B what I was really aiming at in the writing, at least in any cohesive way. I will have to explain it again when I meet with my committee. It was great to hear from Miranda that what I thought I had done was not the complete opposite of what she understood about my book. (El Guincho's "Lycra Mistral")

B took the picture above in my room. (I Break Horses' "Winter Beats")

Monday, March 5, 2012

Exhaustion Report

I haven't posted in over 3 months because I've been working diligently on my MFA thesis. At CCA we turn in our theses to a 3 member faculty committee and then we meet with that committee 2 times to discuss our projects. I've met once so far with my committee (Dodie Bellamy, Donna de la Perriere, Shanthi Sekaran) and it went wonderfully. I had been extremely nervous prior to the meeting but once we all sat down my nervousness went away, and Dodie, Donna, and Shanthi all had really helpful suggestions, and even boosted my confidence. Later, I met one-on-one with Dodie and she took me to dinner, and even though the restaurant had some sort of gas stove malfunction, the dinner was tasty and of course, Dodie offered invaluable comments on my writing.

Since I'm winding down my time as a graduate student at CCA I thought I would express some sense of how lucky I feel to have met the teachers and peers who have made my last 2 years amazingly productive. Just today I met with my mentor Miranda Mellis. We had coffee at Mission Pie. Had I already eaten lunch I might have ordered banana cream pie for dessert! But just a mocha was good. I had never heard of Miranda before coming to CCA; I had never heard of Dodie either, but now I can't imagine my time here without them. I don't think I would have developed how I have had I not been lucky enough to take their classes and be their "mentee". And even better they actually enjoy working with me! What a love letter this is turning out to be. But, it's not just Dodie and Miranda. I've met some really great peers and collaborators. I feel certain some of these people will remain in my life for some time. I feel certain I will work and write with these people in the future. Naturally, some people I will never see again and that's probably not a bad thing.

So I wonder what will we all do when we graduate. Right now I don't know. Certainly, there is no doubt that I will continue writing with the hopes of being published. I think just two years ago there could have been some doubt about that. I wasn't a committed writer. Now, I am. Wouldn't it be great to make living doing it? Or teaching it? Or somehow being involved in the publishing process? Do my peers feel the same? I haven't asked them so I don't know. Do some leave graduate school with an MFA and then never publish anything for the rest of their lives? Is that possible?

While I was on BART this afternoon, I imagined a scene. A fellow passenger would ask me what I did, and I would respond, "I'm a writer." I imagined society's response to that. Or its many responses. How does the rest of the world view what we do? I'm assuming there are no 'non-writers' who read my blog so they might not be able to tell me. Is there some statistic on what people think of writers? And not just economics. Judging how writers are paid, I can guess what people think of them. But, there should be a more emotional view too. Shouldn't there?

I would like to create something beautiful and good. I think I can do that by writing.

A few years ago I read the unabridged edition of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The last 200-300 pages were exquisitely difficult. The emotional power of the story made it impossible not to cry. I loved the characters and their struggle. I don't think I've ever been so involved in a story. I look to those final pages as the prime example of what I want to do not only for others but for myself. I would like to have that feeling again. Even if I have to create it. I would like to create something beautiful and good. This seems like the ideal outcome.