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(cross-posted from the PEN USA Mark blog)

The Mark Blog

 

I’m knee-deep in my rewrite with a deadline looming, so of course I had to run away from home.

Some background: When I first started writing this book, back in the dark ages of 2006, I optimistically applied to a handful of prestigious fellowships and conferences. Ignorance is bliss. When the MacDowell Colony asked me to enumerate my previous awards, adding the helpful parenthetical, “e.g.: Guggenheim, NEA, etc.,” I literally wrote in the allotted space, “You’re kidding, right?” They took me anyway. A handful of acceptances followed: the Prague Summer program, Writers at Work, the Norman Mailer Colony, the Atlantic Center for the Arts. I was on a roll. And those experiences were life-changing. I met famous, fabulous writers who were beyond kind to me. They empathized with my new writer plight and egged me on from further down the road. There were long, chatty dinners with wine and long, uninterrupted days of contemplating my work and napping.

Years passed. Still working on the book. Most of the time I labor at home, alone on my unmade bed, with the dog curled like a lima bean at my feet. But every so often, I get the wild urge to take my act on the road. In 2011, I abandoned the current WIP and decamped to Marfa, Texas, to start something new. I wrote 80 pages in 30 days and smoked way too many cigarettes. Then PEN offered me the unbelievable opportunity to take my original work to the finish line. I spent a few days alone in a cheap beachfront hotel room in Laguna over the holidays and rewrote an outline. There’s something about being away from it all, something about not having to deal with the rigors of daily life that frees up my subconscious.

I have a big deadline for the Writer Whisperer [Ed.: Alan Watt] on Wednesday, so you can perhaps understand why I fled to a hotel in Palm Springs. I’m typing this from my patio, fire blazing, and I’ve already edited 15 pages. When I arrived today, the front desk kept me waiting for my room—not long, maybe a half an hour or so. Frankly, it was like a writer’s reprieve. I decamped to the bar and ordered a beer. When I got to my room, there was a little ice bucket on the counter, crammed with beer and a note propped against it that read: “Thank you so much for your patience.” I taped it to my bathroom mirror. I’ve been working on this book for five fucking years. Thank you for your patience.

In related news. I really should have been born rich—or at least chosen a more lucrative profession—because my growing hotel addiction is getting ridiculous. But Virginia Woolf had it right. There’s definitely something to be said for a room of one’s own. Even if I’m paying for it by the night.

 

The Mark Blog

 
 

I met my agent in 2006 at Lee Gutkind’s now-defunct (or perhaps hibernating) Creative Nonfiction conference. I’d only been writing in earnest for about six months and I’d never been to a conference before. I picked that one because: a. Mary Karr and Kathryn Harrison were dueling headliners and I adore all of their books; and, b. my (then) employer offered to pay for it in lieu of sending me on a spa weekend for some magical feat I’d performed.

Sidebar: I never had the collegiate experience, being a 10th-grade high school dropout and all, so I was seriously alarmed when I arrived and was shown to the dorms. Holy fuck. The housing situation at conferences is dire. Look for a rant about that in an upcoming post.

My workshop was with a woman who runs an MFA program at a prestigious Southern college. On the last day, she took me aside and said, “I want you to know, this is the best work I’ve seen at the conference level.” Needless to say, I fucking cried. I went back to my hotel (what, you think I stayed in the cinderblock prison?) and ran 3 miles on the treadmill (okay, 2), and cried some more.

There was a hideous speed dating agent/editor event that evening. I plopped myself into a metal folding chair opposite a weary, young man with a shaved head, clutching a sweating Bud Light. I told him the story of my workshop experience and he asked to see the pages I’d submitted. I had zero expectations (which is like a unicorn sighting in my world), so I wasn’t nervous. He asked me to send him everything I had.

Flash forward: I sent him the work (all anemic 50 pages of it) and he offered representation. My expectations grew exponentially.

Flash forward: I met with him every time he came to L.A., and sometimes in other places. He was amazingly supportive, bought me dinners and wine, spread out my entire manuscript in the lobby of an airport hotel and went through it beat by beat with me, steering me toward a viable product. He was a mensch.

Have you picked out the words that are the beating heart of this cautionary tale?

Viable product.

There’s a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon between how I needed to figure out my story and viable product.

I tried. Trust me, I tried. We worked on a proposal for months. This was at the trailing end of the publishing comet that was memoir. He believed in me. I believed in him for believing in me. And you know what? It wasn’t enough. I needed time and space. There’s a brilliant Einstein quote, and I’m sure I’m bastardizing it, but it’s something like: You can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it.

It took five plus years of writing my little vignettes before I started to achieve critical mass and finally figure out where my story was rooted. In the meantime, I beat myself up on a daily basis for writing badly while someone was avidly waiting to see my new output. It was stultifying. And it led me down a series of twisty paths that ended in dark, scary cul-de-sacs where I was pretty sure I’d fucked everything up for good.

My longwinded point is that writing is complicated. We sit in lonely rooms (even if we’re surrounded by people at the coffee shop) and try to make meaning out of the words that bubble up out of our subconscious and into our pens. (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, especially if you’re under 30.) The publishing world is morphing and changing as we speak. And there’s a huge difference between what we, as writers, do every day, and what the publishing world wants from us.

Now, all these years later—and after a few fallow periods when I thought all was lost—I’m technically agentless, cocooned by PEN, and working my ass off to tell the story I wanted to tell in the first place.

I hope I’m a cautionary tale to every unpublished writer who thinks that the endgame is finding an agent/publisher/online venue to champion their work. Just write your story, the one you can’t not tell. If you’re fortunate enough to run across agents who express interest in your work, smile, be polite, and tuck their cards into that little flap inside your Moleskin notebook. Tell them you’re flattered, and you’ll be in touch. And get back to the page.

You’ve got a story to tell.

(Jesus, I sound like such an asshole, but it’s the advice I wish someone had beaten me over the head with in 2006.)

Hi, strangers.  If you ended up here from the PEN Mark blog, I feel like a giant asshole, because the last several posts are actually reposts of my weekly blog over there.  That sucks.  Haven’t you had enough leftover Christmas ham already?  But I have a dilemma, which is that–as much as I’d love to thrill you with some scintillating new bloggery–I’m smack in the middle of a PEN Mark deadline.

*shakes fist*  Curse you, deadlines. (Ptoo, ptoo, ptoo.  I have to spit three times and take that back, because I’m incredibly grateful for the structure that PEN is bringing to the lava lamp that is my manuscript right now.)

Anyway, if you just stumbled in from PEN, maybe you haven’t seen this, a guest blog I have up over at Betsy Lerner’s place.  I’ll post it here, if you’re not feeling linky, but then you might as well just be throwing my carefully wrapped Christmas present back in my face, because she’s spectacular.

Well, you know I like to end the year on a high note of pain and suffering, so please enjoy the last post of 2012 from our beloved west coast correspondent, the ever sunny Shanna Mahin . What can I say? This writing business can really kick your ass. Most people quit. And they might be on to something. But for those of us who need to keep scratching at the great wall of being and nothingness, you are not alone. At least not here at Mr. Roger’s neighborhood where the punch is spiked and the language is too. Have your self a merry fucking Christmas and survive the god damn new year. I hope I’ll see you back on January 2, 2012. Love, Betsy

AND NOW, HERE’S SHANNA:

The first shitty Christmas I remember was when my mother got drunk at the bowling alley on Christmas Eve and went home with some guy named Bob who looked like fat Elvis. I think I was seven. When I woke up on Christmas morning and she wasn’t there, I ate some Lucky Charms moistened with tap water and then I opened my present.

We didn’t have a refrigerator in our one-bedroom apartment, but we had a serious motherfucking tree. It was green and fragrant and it touched the cottage cheese ceiling. Priorities.

I got a Twirl-o-Paint set, which I’d been raving about ever since my father showed up for my birthday and took me to the Santa Monica Pier, where he and his girlfriend stuffed me full of cotton candy and let me play all the games, even the ones that cost fifty cents. I came home with a stomachache and the still-damp painting clutched in my sticky fist. I didn’t stop talking about it for weeks.

I had the whole thing assembled when my mother came in the door on Christmas morning, barefoot, with her stiletto heels dangling from one hand. Things went downhill from there.

I’ve told that story, in person and on paper, and with varying degrees of detail, for the past 40 years. I’m telling it here, now, because I feel like it’s my street cred for a big cliché I’m about to throw down, which is this:

Bah, humbug.

Fuck you, Santa, with your forced bonhomie and your egalitarian nature. The holidays suck. (And I’d like to say that if you’ve read this far and you’re mildly horrified by the turn this post is taking, then it’s probably time for us to part ways. No hard feelings. Go call your sister and tell her how much you love her and have a cup of eggnog and a Christmas cookie.)

The holidays are every writer’s nightmare. We’re the kind of folk who like to skulk around the periphery, and the holidays are so front and center. I don’t know what I was thinking when I chose December 18th as my wedding date. Now it’s just a cattle call of celebration: Thanksgiving, our anniversary, Christmas, New Year’s. Fuck me.

My husband and I just celebrated our first anniversary. The day before we left for our romantic Laguna Beach weekend, my husband told me (again) that he’s having a really hard fucking time with my weight gain and my unfinished manuscript. Newsflash: so am I, bro. I’ve been through 100 pounds*, six years, four drafts, and 1.33 agents since I started writing this fucking memoir. And a partridge in a pear tree.

In Laguna Beach, there are twinkle lights on all the lamp posts, and if I see one more dog wearing antlers, I’m applying for a hunting license. I realize what white girl, middle-class problems I’m having, in case you were wondering. But, seriously, the holidays.

What’s the worst holiday story you have to tell? Don’t hold back. Misery loves company.

*That’s 100 lbs. gained and lost and gained, etc.  Ongoing struggle, sure to be a fascinating topic of an upcoming blog post or five.

This Week on “The Hills”

I’m talking about writing an outline, being fat, and other scintillating topics over on the PEN USA blog this week.  There’s oversharing involved, as usual, so if you’re looking for a little schadenfreude, you might wanna hop on over and check it out.

 

I’m talking about baseball, crying, and my project defense over on the PEN Mark blog.

Okay, mostly crying.  Y’know, kinda like life.

You can read it here, and it’s posted below, if that extra click is just too much during this holiday season.  (But you’ll miss out on the experiences of the other Mark participants, and then you’ll be sorry.)

With all due respect to the Mark program, the word defense made me feel a little, um, defensive.  I know it comes from a lauded academic tradition–I mean, I think it does, right?  A thesis defense?  Now I’m not sure and I need to compulsively Google.  Hold please.  Yes, a lauded academic tradition.  So if, like me, you never made it to the thesis defense phase of your formal education, I’m here to tell you that it’s everything you’d think it would be from the movies.  And, to that end, I walked into mine feeling a little defensive.

So, picture me at one end of a big, square table in a roomful of writers, all of whom I wildly respect, and all of whom are peering at me earnestly while asking me to explain the choices I made in my work, which is sitting before them in a big, green notebook.

Oh, Jesus, let’s just get this out of the way right up front:  I cried.

I’m a crier.  I cry at weddings, sappy movies, once while watching the Blue Angels aerial show in San Francisco. (Also fireworks and boisterous gospel choirs.  It’s a majesty thing.)  I cry when the underdog triumphs and when justice prevails and do not get me started on those fucking ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan.

I cried in my Emerging Voices finalist interview, and I cried in my final Mark interview, before they even chose me, so—to be fair–no one can really say that it was a giant shock when I welled up as Alan Watt started directing me toward some pretty profound realizations about where my rewrite needs to go.  It was amazing.  It didn’t feel like a defense, it felt like an exploration, like an archeologist’s pick cracking into some long-buried treasure. Wow, that’s so dramatic.  But, indulge me, will you?  I’ve been working on this book for a really long time.  And, to be honest, I’ve been not working on this book for a really long time, too.  That’s the more painful truth. I’d sort of ground to the end of my insight with the thing.  And distance wasn’t helping.

I needed the hard questions, the relentless—but kind—prodding that Alan does incredibly well.  Seriously, he’s the Writer Whisperer. He and Sam Dunn are like fairy dust for writers—their insight and encouragement is like being sprinkled with possibilities.  There’s more, but I think I just made the diabetics in the room go into sugar shock.

I left my defense meeting clutching a handful of sodden Kleenex and the possibility of everything.  Now comes the hard part. Now I actually have to do the work.  Lucky me.  To paraphrase Lou Gehrig, I feel like the luckiest girl on the face of the Earth.

Thank God I didn’t want to play baseball.

Send In the Clowns

There’s an abridged version of this piece currently up at TheRumpus.com.

Thank you to Susan Clements for including it. You can see it here:

The Blow Job

 (1982)  My cousin, Bill, is getting married again.  His first wife was a famous, giggly blonde actress, and now he’s marrying another actress who, though equally famous, is decidedly less glamorous.  He is marrying America’s Sweetheart.  He is marrying Shirley Feeney.

Mom and I hear about the wedding from Aunt Sharley, but our invitations mysteriously never arrive, so I torment my mother into calling her brother, Bill Sr., to ask that we be included.  My mother does not want to do this, but I push and push until she acquiesces, although she insists she will not attend, which is fine with me.

I am 17 years old and living with her again, after a brief and dismal stint with my erstwhile father and his new family.  Her apartment is 350 square feet.   There is a hot plate and a tiny refrigerator in the hall closet, and the bed—our bed—is unfolded every night from a ratty, tweed sofa.  There is nowhere in that room I can’t hear her breathing.

I spend my days looking for a job that doesn’t require a high school diploma and my evenings hitchhiking down Sunset Boulevard to Gazzarri’s and the Rainbow, where I hang out in the parking lot when I don’t have enough money for the door charge.

The invitation arrives two days before the wedding.  The card stock is thick and creamy and the envelope is lined with shiny paper that matches the color of the calligraphy ink.  I borrow a dress, a slinky, green knit column, and invite the drummer from the Gazzarri’s house band to be my date.  He picks me up in the alley behind my mother’s apartment by honking the horn repeatedly.  He’s driving an old, white van with a broken window and a dragging tailpipe and he doesn’t lean across to open the car door when I approach.  My skirt snags on a protruding spring when I slide into the passenger seat, leaving a curly, green tail of thread protruding from my ass.  I am afraid to pull it for fear that I will unravel entirely.

There are photographers outside when we arrive at the sprawling Brentwood mansion where the reception is being held. Inside, I lose the drummer immediately. There are so many celebrities it feels like I’m watching TV.  John Ritter pratfalls down a flight of stairs and mimes falling into the flower-strewn swimming pool.  I perch at an ornately dressed cocktail table for what seems like an eternity, and when the groom’s brother–my cousin, Mark–slides into the seat next to mine and suggests we go out to his car for a bump, I eagerly agree.  He’s debonair in his black tuxedo:  goateed, thirty-something, slick.  He rests his hand lightly at the small of my back while we wait for his car to be brought from valet.

Twenty minutes later, we are parked on a side street and he pushes my head toward his lap without a kiss or even a word.  To be clear, I don’t resist.  I understand this currency and I’m willing to use it.  When he finishes, I crack the window and spit into the street.  My most vivid memory of the whole night is the gelatinous mouthful that got stuck on the glass and slowly dripped down the passenger door.

 

 

“Quit the bitching on your blog, and stop pretending art is hard.”  —  Amanda Palmer

 

A conversation between me and another writer friend of mine–whom I deeply admire, both personally and professionally–wherein I am complaining about the difficulty of my life, an awkward situation with one of my best friends, and an amazing fellowship opportunity:

 

Me:  They need 25 pages with a synopsis, logline and whatever-the-hell-else by 5 p.m. today.  Friendships are hard; I’m not good at them.  Is your kid being something cute for Halloween?

Him:   He’s just going as a ninja. I think he’s developing shame, so he doesn’t wanna get too far out there.   Are friendships hard, or just when they overlap with writing? It’s women. They talk in code. Who knows what they mean?  The good news is you’ve got a nice deadline, at least.

Me:  Your shame-filled ninja child is killing me. 

Him:  Yeah, having a kid is awful. It’s basically sending all your vulnerability into the world without any of your coping mechanisms.

Me:  That’s why we only have a dog.  Did you read Mona Simpson’s eulogy for Steve Jobs in the NYT?

Him:  I’ve basically stopped reading. The line between Jewish writer and anti-Semitic bibliophobe is where I live.

JoAnn Beard; Cheryl Strayed; Lidia Yuknavitch; Stephen Elliott; Mary Karr; those nice Wolff boys; Haven Kimmel; Michael Ondaatje; oh, jesus, Abigail Thomas; Dave Eggers; Nick Flynn; Vivian Gornick; Bernard Cooper; Samantha Dunn; Jonathan Ames; Donald Antrim; Judith Moore; FUCK YEAH, MARK DOTY; Kathryn Harrison.

Thanks, you guys.  You fucking rule.

I’m one of those girls who came from a bully-ridden childhood, so, now that I’m all growed up, I tend to cut a wide path around people who are shitty just to make themselves feel better.  That said, I’ve been know to sling a barb or three when I’m feeling defensive, which, for the record, is most of the time.  I’m working on it.  When you know better, you do better.  Ew.  I think I just quoted Oprah.

So, there’s been a huge hue-and-cry on Twitter over the past 24 hours about a series of emails between Jenny over at TheBloggess.com and a VP from a fashion PR firm, Brandlink Communications.  It’s schadenfreude at it’s finest.  Especially for me, an escapee from the trenches of being a personal assistant in Hollywood, and a girl who struggles with a touch more celebrity obsession than most.  That’s a long fucking story I won’t bore you with here.  (Oh, look, apparently it’s confession day, too.)

I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a lot more to say about this whole topic, but if you’re not up to speed, you can read about it here.  Go on, I’ll wait.

Did you get all that?  I have to say, as a writer, I’m not sure what’s more offensive–Jose’s smarmy, entitled tone or his egregious misuse of the English language.  Anyway, the Twitterverse exploded this morning, and Jose continued to smarm about the situation.  Apparently it’s not the first time he’s had a email catfight with a blogger. Gawker captured a bitchfest he had with Perez Hilton back in 2006.  And this was back when Perez Hilton was calling celebrities fat cows, just  for fun, and decorating paparazzi photos with doodles of semen and pee trails, and yet he still manages to look like the good guy in their exchange.  You can see that here.

At some point, moderately cooler heads prevailed over at Brandlink, and @BrandlinkJose was deleted from Twitter.  If you’re just joining the fray, you can see screen caps of his last tweets above.  My favorite is the one about his lawyer daddy and his new Armani boots.  Second only to the one where he blamed hackers for his behavior.  Your mother must be so proud, Jose.

I have so much more to say on the topic of bullies and the people who enable them, but I’m smack up against a deadline of my own, and I’m also waiting to see how it all shakes out.  In the meantime, Wil Wheaton is saying it brilliantly over on his blog.

Oh, and did you see the Nancy Upton/American Apparel shitfest a couple of weeks ago?  No?  You can catch up on that here.

I’m gonna go make some popcorn.

Update:  So, I’ve gotten a couple of messages from people who know me, asking about the pr guy, Jose.  Full disclosure:  A long, long, time ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, I worked for a shoe company that employed Harrison & Shriftman.  I don’t think he worked there then, and, even if he did, he wasn’t on my account.  I don’t know him. Period.

Some people say that love and hate aren’t opposites, that hate is the shadow side of love.  I’m not sure I believe that blanket statement, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  I’m an easy hater.  I don’t know, maybe I’m using the term too loosely.

I hated the woman at the adjacent table at dinner tonight, who sent her steak back, not once, but twice–first because it was overcooked and then, again, when it was cooked to her exact specifications, but not as tender as she wanted it to be.

“Medium rare, sugar,” she said to the soft-spoken, Hispanic kid who served her. “Do y’all know what that means?  It should be warm and red in the center, not the color of cotton candy.”

Aside from the passive/aggressive condescension, it was something about the way she said sugar, a syrupy rebuke that was infinitely more demoralizing than a direct complaint.  I shifted in my chair and went back to my book.

The second time she called him over, her candied edge had doubled.  “Well, darlin’,” she drawled.  “I can’t even cut into this old thing with my knife,” and there was an underlying tone of indignation that smacked of a far more serious offense.  The waiter murmured an apology.

“Never mind,” she said, with an aggrieved, yet candy-coated, sigh.  “Just bring me more mashed potatoes and asparagus and I’ll make do.”

Later, after she’d spent an eternity recounting the many delicious steaks of her lifetime to her silent dining companion, she was finally ready to leave.  Upon discovering she’d been charged for the side dishes she’d requested (and consumed), she pitched a high-fructose fit.

“I don’t want you to get your manager, darlin’,” she said in the overly loud and patient way that some people use when speaking to children. “I just want you to take it off the bill. Is that so very difficult for you to understand?”

When the waiter walked past me, I could tell he was trying not to cry, and my hate gland immediately dumped a toxic load into my temporal lobe.  I got up and went to the bathroom, mostly to keep myself from saying something horrifically rude to the woman, who, as I passed, was muttering to her still-silent dinner partner–I swear to fucking god–about it being impossible to find good help these days.

I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, playing with the fancy soap dispenser and delivering a withering imaginary monologue in the very flattering mirror.  When I came out they were gone, and the waiter was just picking up the credit card receipt from their empty table.  I watched him, in the dim light of the courtyard, as he furrowed his brow and did the unfortunate math.  My check was still in the leather folder on my table, and  I threw an extra $10 in, with a scrawled note that said something like, “it’s not you, it’s her, sweet pea.”  I hightailed it out of there before he came around to pick it up.

Then I came home and cried.

I fucking hate that woman.  I hate her for the sweet, befuddled look on that kid’s face when he picked up the check and saw that she’d stiffed him, and I hate her for her fucking sense of entitlement and the way she enrobed her bitter diatribe in a saccharine shell.

I’ve never seen that woman before and I’ll probably never see her again.  There’s no lovelorn shadow side to my hatred for her.  It’s fucking exhausting.  Sometimes I feel like I must have been absent on the day they were handing out life helmets.

I was going to write about Twitter stalking, and self-hatred, and the toxic, life-sapping amount of energy I put into obsessing about people from my past who couldn’t care less about me, but that’s all the hate I have in me for one night.