Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dentists and Garbage and Writing: The Final Countdown

My time here is winding down. It is, in fact, ending a little sooner than expected, because a possible writing opportunity popped up back home and I'm hauling back to San Francisco two days early. Two days shouldn't make that much of a difference, but it's kind of a shock--I have what's left of today and Friday to finish my work here, clean up, pack, and motor back to the coast. It's now occurring to me that there are about a billion things I wanted to do still--eat a Hatch Chile Burger at Sparky's... Hold on. It's only like 45 minutes away. I can do that one right now! BRB.


Okay that was an experience. The burger was really good. The trip there and back was weird and I don't want to talk about it. Back to what I was saying...

The second half of my residency has not been as productive as the first, I'll admit. I took off for a few days to explore this corner of the world--White Sands National Monument, Marfa, Carlsbad Caverns, Gila Cliff Dwellings. Time well-spent, certainly. And I knew there would be good days and bad days. At times I felt like I just needed to get out of my own way, the writing was coming so easy I had to flee before it like a wave of water bursting through a dam. Those were really good days. There were days that were bad in the sense that the writing was difficult and painful (as it often is for me), but I felt really good afterwards because I had an essay, rough as it might be, to show for it. And then there were the shitty days where I accomplished pretty much nothing, despite staring at the screen for hours, starting and stopping and deleting and starting again and deleting that and then going to lay down on my face. Those days didn't feel so good.

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself about that. I now have five essays that are ready or almost ready to send out and shop around and two more that are complete but basically 12 miles of bad road. Most important of all--they are out of my head.

A few of these essays I wrote, they've been torturing me. For years. I knew I wanted to write them. I knew I had to write them. I thought about it constantly: while I was at work, when I was walking the dog, when I was out with friends, when I was at a movie. I felt guilty for doing anything that wasn't writing. Even going to the gym! I would in fact forego some of these activities on the pretense that I would stay in and write, but I could never get going. I wouldn't go hang out in coffee shops, or try new restaurants, or just go wander around in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I put all of these things aside to work. And instead I just sat at my desk and stared, and probably went on facebook forever, and then took a nap with my dog. I just couldn't do it. Why? Because I was scared.

Writing is hard. It's really, really, really hard. It's often slow-going and painful. I have found that there is a requisite amount of garbage I need to write before I get to the good stuff. Writing garbage sucks. It feels terrible. Already wracked with self-doubt, I think "Is this the best I can do? Oh my God, I'm terrible! Why did I think I could do this?!" and I imagine the authors I admire climbing through my window and beating me with their celebrated books. You ever been whacked with a copy of War and Peace? Well... technically I haven't, either, but I bet it hurts. The garbage in my brain is just like the garbage in your house--day by day, it builds up. So if I skip writing one day, I have twice as much garbage to get through before I find a sentence I can stomach. And on and on and on. Sometimes the bad, early drafts were so disheartening I couldn't even get through them. The longer I put off the writing, the more terrified I was to try and begin again. It was like gaining 100 lbs. after a few years as a semi-pro athlete and then trying to make a comeback. It was a huge task, and it was daunting, and I was just really, really scared.

That was the best thing about having an entire month to work. I had time to spread out. If I spent three hours writing total crap, well, I still had the entire rest of the day to do better. And if I didn't manage to do better that day, I had 29 more days ahead of me. So I did it. I dug in. It was still really awful and disgusting and demoralizing, but I managed to get through the landfill of garbage piled up in my brain and start writing things I didn't totally hate. Some of the stuff was actually pretty good, I think. I wrote the stories I'd been holding onto for years, and a couple that just popped up out of nowhere.

This was actually in a book
in my dentist's waiting room. WTF?!
And that? Feels AMAZING. It's kind of like when I finally went to the dentist after (okay, this is REALLY embarrassing) eleven years. I know. I KNOW. For a while I didn't go because I didn't have dental insurance. And then I got dental insurance and I paid for it year after year and didnI can't do this anymore! I have to call the dentist TOMORROW! But I wouldn't. Maybe my teeth were all rotten, but if I didn't call him, he wouldn't get to pull them out! Right? Right.
't go. I was scared that I would have cavities in each and every one of my teeth because I put it off for so long. Just like the garbage in my brain, the longer I waited, the scarier it became. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in 5 years, I bet I have like 10 cavities. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in 8 years, he is going to pull out all my teeth. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in ELEVEN YEARS and I'm going to need dentures! It was always looming in the back of my mind. I wasn't even conscious of it. I just had this nagging feeling that there was something I needed to be doing. I'd sit bolt upright in bed at night and think
Anyway, I finally went. And guess what? MY TEETH WERE PERFECT. I was so scared for nothing. And now that I've gone, this heavy yolk I didn't even know I was carrying has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't have this little niggling voice in the back of my head at all times.

It seems to be the same with these essays. I feel freed, really. I can work on the comedy script my friend and I have been talking about for 2 years (I kept saying I couldn't do it because I needed to focus on [not] writing my own projects). I can write about ANYTHING I WANT. I can keep moving forward and away from the painful things I felt I needed to write about. I was afraid that if I let those wounds heal I wouldn't be able to access the feelings from that time in my life, and my writing wouldn't have the depth or emotion I wanted. Now that I don't have to hang on to every terrible detail, now that it's all pretty much down on paper, I can let go.

Now, for the first time in years, I truly have a blank page. That's exciting and frightening at the same time, and partly why I haven't written as much. I'm not used to the freedom. It's like when rescued greyhounds are presented with a huge, open property to romp and run, but they just stand still. They've been in a box for most of their lives, and they're not sure what to do with all that open space. I built myself a cold, dark mental box and sat in it for about 8 years. Just because I'm out of the box, it doesn't mean I'm done writing. I'm just done with that stuff, I think. Now I get to think up new projects, and I have most of the garbage cleared away, and maybe I can even sit quietly in a coffee shop or go for a hike and just be happy with that.

Geez, that was a lot longer than I was planning. Well, next time I'd like to talk to you about Artist/Writer In Residence programs and why you should apply for one right freaking now. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

1/2 way mark

Today is September 15th and I'm halfway through my residency. I guess it's a good time to check in.
I'm happy to report my fears about productivity were unfounded. It gets easier to write every day, and so far I have four essays written--three are (very) rough drafts and one is almost (I hope) ready to send out. I've written roughly 11,000 (edit: Haha, I wrote 1,100 at first. Whoops!) words, not counting the other bits of writing I began that went nowhere and the 1.5 notebooks I've filled up with handwritten stuff. 

Maybe that's not a lot for some people, I don't know. But it's a lot for me. As a contrast, let me give you some other stats. Before I came here, I'd written two essays over the course of two years. Again, that's not including a lot of things I stopped and started, or blog posts, or the little odds and ends that are spread around. But in terms of a complete piece with a beginning, middle, and end, I wrote two. TWO! And I really love them and hope they get published, but geez. That's pretty sad. 

So yeah, this has been really incredible for me. I am glad to know I am still capable of writing and that I can do it day after day. Sometimes it's a real struggle to get the words out, and sometimes my fingers can barely keep up with my brain. It's been fun and rewarding and a lot of hard work. 

There are a few day-trips I'm planning to take in the latter half of this residency, so I'm trying to plan for that. We had a difficult couple days when the town was flooding and people were being evacuated from their homes and the Rio Grande was splashing over the riverbanks, but everything turned out just fine. We spent the night at a hotel up on high ground, just in case. We ate pizza and swam in the pool and sat in the hot tub and I went for a run in the gym (I'm not even going to talk about the state of my poor body out here. I'm trying to eat well but it's hard. And it's too hot to run, so... Yikes.)

I wrote an essay yesterday so today I gave my brain a little break and went for a drive. I ended up in Hatch, New Mexico, which is famous for its chiles. I unfortunately missed the Chile Festival this year (I found out about it the day after it was over. Rats!), so there wasn't as much activity down there, especially on a Sunday. There were a few shops on the side of the road with long bushels of chiles hanging from their roofs like red bananas. I pulled over to check one out and as soon as I stepped out of the car I could smell chiles roasting. They let you pick out which ones you want (mild, hot, green, red, etc.) and then they'll put them in a wire cylinder that rotates like a bingo cage over the fire. And when they're good and roasted they release them into a big bag for you to take home. I was a little overwhelmed because I don't know if I could use that many chiles, and I can't really take them back to California with me, so this time I just bought some chile powder. I'll probably come back and get some dried ones, though. 

Then for the rest of the day I messed around in the studio, cutting and grinding glass to make some ART. 

Other important information: Soundtrack of this trip seems to be Townes Van Zandt, particularly Pancho & Lefty
The Exotic Cactus Farm is ONLY open on weekends and closes at 3pm. 
I miss my dog horribly. Sometimes I wake up and reach out to squeeze her little paws until I remember she's not here. Then I cry myself to sleep. (I don't really.)

Thanks to everyone who is reading, and for the encouraging emails and texts and thoughts. It means so much to me, you have no idea. There is nothing more thrilling than to know someone is reading something I wrote.

(Edited to Add: I just looked back and saw I wrote an update 5 days ago. That seems like it was forever ago! Also, I feel I need to explain why I only wrote 1 essay in those 5 days. I've been editing the heck out of one and then we had the flood so I didn't get to do as much writing okay?! I know no one cares but because I'm a crazy person I need to justify that to myself.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Adios, Facebook

I deactivated Facebook for the rest of the week, possibly longer. Facebook is poison. I wrote a song about it:

Huh! Yeah!
Good God, Y'all!
What is good for?
Absolutely NOTHING!

OHHH Facebook I despise
Because it means destruction
Of my free time

Facebook ain't nothing but a heartbreaker
Friend only to the procrastinator! 
It's an enemy to all mankind

Say it! Say it! Say it!
Facebook! HUH!
What is it good for?

I'm still working on it but I think it's pretty good so far.

I totally see the irony in the fact that probably no one will see this post because I can't link it to my Facebook, but OH WELL!

Okay I'm going to go cut some glass! Bye!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

10 day check in

It's all been going well here so far. After 10 days I have 3 rough drafts in the bag. Maybe I should just be plowing into them head-long, and I am doing that a little (my usual process has been to agonize over each sentence, unable to move to the next until it is perfect. I'm abandoning that for the month, just getting it all down on paper, sloppy and disconnected and stupid but it's out), but there's a lot of sitting with a 1,000 yard stare, doodling, taking notes. Last night I even wrote down some song lyrics. Was I writing in my 7th grade diary? Whatever. It's done.

The piece I wrote last night kind of surprised me. I'd been researching and brainstorming all day. I asked one of my best friends Carla for her thoughts. I listened to relevant music and read a bunch of stories from the website I'm going to pitch to, noting the tone, what has and has not been covered, and what approach they've taken when tackling mature topics for their teen audience (although I think a lot of adults read this particular publication because it's fucking awesome and where were they when I was a teenager?!). I'm pretty nervous about this essay because I have to admit to some really awful things I've done. I think it's an important story so I'm willing to open myself up to the possible abuse, but I'm nervous. At least it's a pretty supportive community on that webpage. I'm hopeful. Also they haven't even accepted the thing and I haven't finished writing it, so let's all just calm down, okay?! Anyway, I had pages and pages of notes, but my eyes hurt from reading and scribbling and I felt kind of burned out, having finished an essay the day before. I thought I'd go to bed early and get up and write.

But no! A few notes turned into 12 pages of writing! I finished around 4:30am, just as "The Thong Song" popped up on my headphones. Nothing heralds the completion of a difficult, deeply emotional essay like "The Thong Song." Or so I have found. That actually kept me awake for another hour at least because I listened to it like 15 times.

It was a great day to sleep in. It started raining yesterday and it hasn't stopped yet. It's not torrential, and it's not the misty, spittle-in-your-face rain we get in San Francisco. Just steady and audible. Perfect for sleeps. I'm pretending like I don't sleep until 11am every day. It's kind of amazing that after 3 years of waking up between 3:30-6:30am for work and basically training myself to be a morning person (as if getting up at 3:30am really puts me in that category. That's... I don't know. That's its own thing.), to the point that on my days off I usually get up between 8am-9am, it took all of 2 days to revert back to my natural, nocturnal habits. I am staying up into the wee hours and sleeping until late morning (okay, noon today, but I didn't fall asleep until like 5am), the way I always have. I thought I could force a change, but apparently that's just how I function. What's even stranger is I really like working from 4am-12pm. It probably has more to do with half my shift being over before the bakery even opens for business and then getting out of work when the sun is shining and I have the whole day to... nap.

So the plan today is to go back and start typing up and editing what I wrote last night. The overall plan for writing here is first drafts only, to get as much done as I can and then I can refine it when I get back to SF, but there's an actual deadline on this thing, so I need to get rolling.

I've got a few places in New Mexico I plan to visit before the end of the month. White Sands (the Trinity atomic bomb site is there, too, but it's only open to the public once a year. So lame. That would have been a really helpful field trip for an idea that's been rolling around in my brain), Carlsbad Caverns, and a few of the pueblos in the area. If anyone knows of other spots I need to check out before I leave, please leave a comment! (Even if you don't you can still totally leave a comment. Comments make me feel good).

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A little onion in your soul

Hi folks. 

Hard at Work
I'm five days in. It feels like I've been in that oversize cannonball that carries people leagues under the sea to the wreck of the Titanic or in that suit Ed Harris et all wear in The Abyss. Just slowly descending into the very deep, very dark, very cold water and some fresh-faced kid on the surface is talking in a little microphone in my ear, reporting my depth: "1,000 feet. 1,100 feet. 1,200 feet... Sir... Sir you're going too deep. You're going too deep! Sir!" (I don't know why he's calling me sir but that's just how I hear it.) And finally I just switch off communication with the surface and the kid rips the headphones off and throws them across the control room. 

I'm not at the bottom yet. Obviously. Like I said, it's been five days and two of those days I spent getting settled in, buying groceries or wandering around town, marveling at the prices of vintage dresses in the thrift shops. I made some limeaid and I was feasted upon by approximately 1,000,000 mosquitos. I saw a biker buying hamburger buns and he looked like an extra from Sons of Anarchy, with huge blonde mutton chops and an eyepatch (a fucking eyepatch!!!), except he was wearing a SoA shirt so I didn't know what to think. And eventually I migrated in front of my computer or a spiral notebook, and I started fooling around with some words and some ideas that I've been kicking around for a few years now, and then I started to sink down into it. Into the creativity. Into the solitude writing requires. Into the weirdness. 

I've never had an opportunity like this before. I have never had this much freedom to write. In college I had other classes and reading to consider, friends and parties and movies and finals (I wonder how much higher my GPA would have been if the Special Edition Lord of the Rings box sets hadn't come out right before finals every winter). After I graduated I had to start worrying about making money (which does not relate to writing, because we all know you can't make money as a writer) while simultaneously trying to gain trajectory in an industry that was on the verge of collapse. My parents were augmenting my sad paychecks at this time, so I was fortunate enough to stay out of serious financial trouble, but I still had two jobs that required my energy and my presence and sometimes my creativity, plus a social life that required a lot of drinking. Then I stopped drinking and I had to learn how to cope with life. And because I studied creative writing in college instead of computer sciences, I haven't made a small fortune that would allow me to focus on writing full-time. I did have a bike accident three years ago that, with the generous help of my lawyer aunt, provided enough scratch for me to take this month-long leave of absence from work and do this residency. 

What I am saying is I have never in my life had a period of time in which all I was asked to do was write. Just write. Write whatever I want. Write early in the morning. Write into the night. Write in my PJs. Write naked. Write a novel or an essay or a script. That is the single expectation for the next 25 days. I don't even have to take care of my dog. Just get inside my brain and finally muscle out all the projects that have been incubating over the years. It's an incredible gift and it's incredibly intimidating, but I am determine to make the most of it. I am going to take the work ethic I have applied to my other jobs over the last 8 years and unleash it on my writing.

But here's the thing: 

Writing means being alone. With my thoughts. Which is great but also making me a little kooky. In the last three days I would estimate I've spent 2-3 hours conversing with other humans. That includes phone calls, people at the grocery store, and the two other people here. That's the other thing. I was expecting to spend a lot of time alone, but maybe... not quite so much? The two other Artists in Residence both canceled at the last minute due to family or medical emergencies. So while I'm not entirely alone, I am the only AIR on the premises. It doesn't matter all that much since, as I said, writing is a solitary activity, but it means there are fewer opportunities to interact people. Last night I had dinner with Monica, the executive director here, and she also showed me how to cut and shape glass, which was really fun. Monica is an extremely intelligent and articulate woman. And while I think she spends a lot of time alone as well, working on applications and such, it doesn't seem to have dulled her wits in the slightest. I, on the other hand, feel like a cave person. "Durr," I say. "Durr, that's awesome." Not exactly holding up my end of the conversation. 

Plus, spending all day in my apartment,alone, forgetting to open the blinds or turn on the lights, staring into the glow of my laptop, exploring my most difficult memories and that time I thought about murdering someone... I've been feeling a little Jack Torrance. Not entirely unexpected, but not really welcome.

And there's one more thing. Something I didn't anticipate. 

There's the onion. 

I did a little shopping on the second day and bought some veggies to make a simple salsa. Roma tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeno, and a red onion. I tried to throw them together so I'd have a healthy little snack while I was writing, but the knives in my apartment are horribly dull and I couldn't really chop very finely, and I don't have a blender or immersion mixer, and the veggies turned out to be not all that fresh. But I was still determined to eat it and not waste my money and time or deprive the veggies of fulfilling their life's purpose (to be eaten by me). Only now it feels like the bowl in my refrigerator is an evil, despicable force that would be more at home in Creepshow than my little purple apartment. The onion in the salsa has taken over everything. The smell permeates the entire room. If I open the refrigerator, even for a second, my eyes will be watering for the next twenty minutes. I can taste onion in the back of my mouth at all times. Even the ice cubes in the fucking freezer taste like onion! I don't know if this is part of me entering the darkness of my soul and finding just a gross, stinky onion or a manifestation of psychosis or if I'm about to have a seizure or if I just need to throw out the salsa. I did flee to the art studio at about 4 o'clock, and that seems to have stayed my insanity a little bit. But I can't sleep here. Eventually I have to return to my apartment and I have to deal with that shit.

I also hit my head on the low bathroom door about 16 times today, so it could have something to do with that. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This blog is currently functioning as a runway. It's a warm up. It's the time when you twist the key in the back of the monkey or rev the toy car in reverse, the little gears and springs inside clicking as they pull taut, before you let it go spinning off out of control across the table, over the edge and onto the floor. In a beautiful way, hopefully. And while I'm not going to publish anything I completely hate--this is one of the only representations of my writing out in the world so I want to be at least somewhat conscious of what is available to potential readers/publishers/agents/slush pile readers, etc--I'm not giving it my best. Because I want to sell my best, because I work really, really hard on it and I would like to get paid to release it from the grip of my hot little controlling hands. Actually my hands are pretty big.

I'm realizing more and more that this particular residency is kind of perfect for the writing I'm doing. Much of the story I'm telling takes place in the South, or in the West, or in the desert. Much of it in Austin, in Arizona, in Joshua Tree. A great number of the most significant periods of my life--be they months or days or a moment in a bathroom, stabbing the passcode into someone else's phone--have occurred in the desert. This is odd because I spent the first 22 years of my life in Illinois or Wisconsin, but 22-30 were pretty much a non-stop shit show, which makes for more interesting writing, and that's when I was in the West. I also think the desert weird and dangerous and there's some old magic or something out here. Like if I were to have a spiritual awakening or finally meet my spirit animal, it would be in the desert. I just feel a little more receptive to whatever is out there, I guess. 

I'm going to put on an old album and make salsa with dull knives, because that is what I used to do in the essay I am working on, and maybe my spirit will travel back in time to inhabit the body of 23-year-old Brooke and access all those feelings and angst. Maybe I will just get jalapeno on my fingers and then touch my face. 

Monday, September 2, 2013


     Every night on the road I had the same conversation. I'd be checking into my hotel--in Vegas with the smoke and clamor of the Casino at my back, in Springdale with the massive rock formations of Zion looming in the distance--and the woman behind the counter would ask: "Just you?" 

"Just me," I'd say. 

"Wow. That's brave," as they handed me the keycard.

My solo trip wasn't so much a product of bravery as it was bad timing--I was accepted as Artist in Residence in New Mexico for the month of September, with only about a month to plan. It wasn't enough notice for my best friend to get the time off, and I work with most of my other good friends in San Francisco, which meant that if I wasn't in the bakery decorating cakes, they had to be the ones to do it. I didn't feel comfortable asking my friends in other parts of the country to spend their money on air fare so they could be cooped up in a car for five days. I also invited the photographer I'd been dating for about three weeks, but he couldn't come, which was probably a good thing. Yeah, he would have shot some bitchin' film, but he probably would have ended up buried under a cactus somewhere. Travel is not easy on relationships of any kind, and you need to have that solid trust and love so you can bounce back when someone (me) starts using her high-pitched, hysterical voice because someone else (you) didn't mention that 48 was the exit we were looking for until we were upon it and now it's too late to get on the ramp and it's five miles until we can turn around. Or maybe someone in your traveling party refuses to eat at any fast food joint other than Wendy's, which are not as numerous as McDonald's or Burger King, and you end up driving for hours, cranky and starving, all for the sake of a square burger and frostee. 

Anyway, I started thinking about the other times I've been congratulated for my bravery--driving from Chicago to San Francisco by myself, moving more than once to cities where I had one or two acquaintances but little else, sometimes not even a job. Daunting to some. Maybe even most. But for me it was easy. I've always been a solitary person. When I was a kid I preferred to play alone, with my dolls in my room or out in the woods with the creatures of my imagination. I had a hard time maintaining friendships because I would rarely seek out companionship--if someone wanted to hang out with me that was cool, but I was never the one extending the invitation because I was perfectly content to be alone.  Inviting someone to do the things I wanted to do with me didn't even occur to me as a possibility. (To be honest I still have trouble with that.) 

I'm not saying all that to boast about my courage. Quite the opposite. Being alone is comfortable and easy and safe. I control my time and activities. I don't have to compromise (unless it's with something within my own self, like my nemesis fatigue). It doesn't take courage for me to up and start a new life in a new city, or to travel alone for days at a time. What is brave, to me, is staying in one place and working on friendships and a career, making myself vulnerable to rejection or to things not working out just as I wanted. I do a lot of things with one foot out the door, looking ahead to what's next. In fact, I've noticed that I experience the itch to move to a new city precisely when I'm putting down roots in the current one, when I'm starting to have meaningful relationships and my boss starts talking about a promotion. That's the hard stuff for me. That's when I get scared, when I want to run. When staying would be an act of bravery. It's just a matter of perspective, really. 

All that being said, this residency is very frightening to me. It's a month-long commitment to doing the work I want to do, and it's no one's fault but my own if I squander this time. I've always had plenty excuses for not writing--working too hard, too tired, too depressed, not enough time, to obsessed with a relationship, too busy LIVIIINGGGG!!!--and this eliminates all of them. It's just me vs. the word. It's like a final face off, like that time I heard about Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake having a dance off when they ran into each other at a club after they broke up. But am I Brit-Brit or JT? Am I going to be shaving my head and attacking cars with an umbrella or am I going to be golfing with Jay-Z? If I can't do it here and now, I won't ever be able to do it, not for real. I see this as my big shot, and I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I need to. I need to stop fucking around and either make this happen or give up the dream and move on. Man, that's like every Bruce Springsteen song ever.