Never before have I meant that salutation more literally. The brutality of racism persists. Greed persists. The virus persists. And yet, I still have the capacity to hold another person dear. And we have art.
This newsletter is a "wax" so for those who prefer "wane,” here are some bullet points:
+Publishing News! Not one book, but two! My debut novel, called Doubting Thomas, and "The Lab," a trade textbook version of The Lab, co-written with my friend Alice LaPlante.
+The Lab Online :: A six-session step-by-step asynchronous (you have six months to complete on your own timeline, requires neither scheduled attendance nor Zoom) version of The Lab. Many more details in this newsletter and the link.
+ Lab-intern and newly-admitted MFA student to SFSU's Creative Writing Program (and all along fantastic person in so many other ways), the incredible Kirsten Dualan, offers a recap of the last in-person cycle.
My friend Rick said to me the other day after we each lamented, “Well, the good news is that so far, we're 2-2 when it comes to surviving pandemics."
Not everyone is so lucky.
Rick and I have known each other since we were teenagers. 30+ years! We were so young, newbies to San Francisco, recently-hired waiters at the now-closed Il Fornaio in the Embarcadero. Instant friends, we've stayed in touch--mostly in person--through all of our individual lives' variations, including living in several cities and a couple of countries. In February or March (I’ve known since late January), I told Rick over the phone about landing a publishing contract for my novel Doubting Thomas. He burst (and I do mean burst) into tears. You should have heard it. If joy for someone else’s good fortune and sibling love could be combined to produce a sound, I know it. He cried for five minutes. And I’m not saying five minutes because I'm gay and a Gemini. I'm saying it because of the time stamp on the phone. In between sobs (and I also use the word sob intentionally), he kept repeating, "I'm so proud of you. I'm so happy."
Before sharing the news with anyone, I reveled in gratitude. If you know me, you know I loathe (any, but especially) the humble brag that wears a cloak of gratitude as its disguise. My reaction is no doubt related to the unfortunate fact that gratitude is one of the few (okay, two) feelings I really get—and I hate to see its power watered-down by insincerity. I even know (as the somatic folks say) where gratitude lives in my body! I feel it. After years of practice, it’s easy for me to tap into gratitude for almost anything—even the painful stuff.
So many talented writers and artists don’t get the chance to have an audience. The book has been a long haul—Twenty-one years of active pursuit. After many twists and turns with agents and “Big 5” editors, it was a “Labber” and friend John Trout, not an agent, who told writer/editor Michael Nava about Thomas.
Given who I am, where I come from, what brought me to writing in the first place, and what this story examines, it is so appropriate to make my fiction “debut” with an independent queer press. After I accepted Amble’s publication offer, Michael made his first editorial comment:
“I think it could be angrier. And queerer.” I didn’t know until I heard him say it, that I’d been waiting my whole life to receive that comment. One of the greatest gifts of my life is that I happened upon Larry Kramer at the Gay March on Washington in 1993 just before he started his speech. Not anger, fury, that’s what he eloquently expressed as the appropriate response to lack of political leadership to the AIDS crisis because of who was dying: queers, Black people, those who used needles. His play The Normal Heart and that speech had a stirring, provocative effect on me. He helped me recognize my complacency, my neediness for approval from institutions that had zero receipts for seeing people like me. I'd been cashing the check on someone else's definition of a gay man instead of writing my own. I will call continue to call upon his spirit every time I sit down write.
Those of us who are or have been described by others as rejects or, more politely, as “marginalized” or “not-mainstream-enough” or “not commercial enough” are told too much of the opposite. We've been told to make it more palatable, whatever that means. Michael, Amble, and Amble’s mom, Bywater Books, get that. I also want to say: In addition to the silence and dismissals, I have received incredible respect as well as smart, precise, accurate criticism from both “Big 5” editors as well as my wonderful agents. No BS: people who work all day every day to usher works exploring themes like yours and mine out into the world. Sometimes the “no” had less to do to do with “the market” but the fact that—given the realities of publishing debut fiction—my story needed work. Directly or indirectly, they helped me see it. All those "no"s helped me get the yes.
Back to Rick, he had a similar reaction at my wedding four years ago (today!). His words then? “I can't believe it."
I wasn't sure what he couldn't believe--given what he knows about what I’ve been through, and all the defenses I’ve built up--that I’d convinced someone as special as Ansu to partner with me? Or the unlikely outcome that we'd both lived through rough childhoods and the early AIDS years as troubled and addicted young people—to somehow land with our feet on the ground—older, balder, rounder—surrounded by so many people who loved us—including the ghosts of friends who hadn’t lived—at tables in a garden room where jars held bunches of peonies in full bloom?
Rick has been an incredible friend in countless ways throughout the years. When he said, “I’m proud of you,” I took it to mean he’s proud of his own and others’ determination and persistence because he knows what it takes to continue with zero guarantees of so-called success. When he said, “I’m so happy,” I took it to mean that he sees his and others’ successes in mine. It's hopeful that every now and again determination and persistence lead to success. It makes the lie of the American Dream seem, for a moment, real, for all of us, even those of us who know it's a lie. True success isn't a book deal. It's knowing one's own value, seeing it in others, and feeling worthy of it whether or not its bestowed.
Rick doesn't come to my readings (and who can blame him? There are noteworthy exceptions, but let’s face it, many literary readings are un-fun for nearly everyone except those featured and/or heavy drinkers). I’d be surprised if he’s read many of my published essays or stories. This is not a diss. I'm glad. Rick and I share a passion for so many subjects. Literary prose-writing and the culture and community surrounding it is not one of them. My own relationship to the lit scene is ambivalent. How can I expect others to embrace it just because it (very) occasionally includes me? Once I posted notice of a reading I’d been invited to participate in. Rick said, “You don't show up at my work. Do you expect me to show up at yours?” No, I didn’t, and no I don't. One hundred times over I’d prefer to be in a room of one interested person (even if it’s just me) than a thousand who show up out of guilt or obligation. I feel Rick's love and support not only how often he's recommended The Lab. His how-to-run-a-small-business suggestions have been godsends for me over the years as someone offering writing classes in a saturated and ever-changing market. I can feel his joy in the fact that I've found something that brings me joy—or at least allows me to better exist in the world.
Perhaps Rick’s true superpower in my life, in addition to his humor (I sent him this text for approval before sending it to you and he said, “Oh my God wonderful! Tears again. Did I die of the coronavirus and this is my eulogy? Have I fallen through to the other dimension and am I seeing my own funeral?"), is his ability to mirror emotion. Again and again, his honest, uncensored reactions have allowed me to tap into buried or difficult feelings. It has taken me a while to get there, but because of Rick, I can truly say, “It’s with great joy that I…” and “I’m thrilled to…” …make this announcement.
Soon after landing one book deal, a second came along. The first pandemic I lived through taught me that life is weird and unfair, and there will always be droughts and deluges. So while delighted (in addition to overjoyed and thrilled), I'm not all that surprised. It will be a co-authored textbook-version of The Lab, to be published by Norton. My cross-genre, generative, and experimental prompts will be combined with the teaching and writing wisdom of my friend and collaborator and co-author Alice LaPlante.
Rick didn’t cry for that one. In fact, we brushed over the details in favor of more pressing discussions about what’s happening now: our country in crisis because of another virus during another period of dismal leadership, the lie of white supremacy, anti-Black murder and racism, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, the constantly changing and evolving way in which we need to ask ourselves what actions can we take? What can we do?
Thanks to the help and guidance I received from Labber Billy Gong, The Lab Online is fully up and running! The artists whose processes we explore are Cheryl Strayed, Maurice Sendak (with a bit of William Blake), Suzan-Lori Parks, Justin Torres, Taylor Mac, and Ellen Bass. All you need is a Gmail account and decent WIFI. The Lab Online has been another labor of love. It has taken years, but I’m finally able to offer a 6-session asynchronous (you can do the sessions in any order at any time over six months). No Zoom! There are six free warm-ups on the page—yours to enjoy. Tuition is $495. A portion goes to fund such .orgs as Black Lives Matter, Marin/SF Food Bank, LAMBDA Literary, and others to support local artists/businesses. If you want to take The Lab Online, and cash is the only thing you lack, get in touch. We can likely work out a deal.
Fewer blessings have been easier to recognize than getting to work with SFSU interns at The Lab. They get to see me when I'm my own boss. Kirsten Dualan had big shoes to fill as the previous interns had done so much to make me look good! She did not disappoint. She conducted this excellent interview with writer/Labber Jessica Powell. She wrote this recap of the most recent cycle of The Lab Live. Also, much of the social media content on Instagram and Facebook. Thank you, Kirsten, and congratulations on your invitation to join the MFA in fiction at SFSU! I hope that you'll use Kirsten's recap to pursue some of the artists mentioned. They're all life-affirming.
Thank you, Kirsten! And thank you to everyone who signed up for the last cycle.
For the first week of this Cycle, Matthew prompted a group of returning Labbers, new faces, and friends with a series of experiments inspired by Betye Saar's work from a recent exhibit called Soul of a Nation, at the DeYoung Museum. He wanted us to delve into our characters' physical and emotional landscapes. Matthew showed us interview footage where Saar talked about her work, and a turning point that came at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, which redirected her initial artistic vision as a call for Black liberation. Using a collection of found objects, Saar divines caricatures, washboards, and windows with new meaning through the art of assemblage. Through strategic juxtaposition, dismantlement, and reformation, Saar's work critiques the zeitgeist of historically anti-Black representations within the American culture. As we explored her work, we dove deeper into our character's unique vision of the world that gives certain objects meaning. This week, items generated in The Lab included: Barbie heads, Animal Farm copies, and berries. Whether it be assemblage or short story, Saar reminds us that art provides us avenues to consider identity within a culture that is both connected to the past and pulled by the future.
Taking inspiration from Richard Mosse's "Incoming," a controversial project of his that was recently at SF MOMA, we began Week 2 by imagining our characters in a state of transition through the lens of a heat map. Mosse repurposed military surveillance technology in order to reveal body heat (the military used it to find and kill enemies; Mosse used it to show his subjects' humanity). For many museum goers, the reality of being a refugee is abstract and too easy to ignore. Mosse hopes our collective humanity in a process that transforms the invisible to the visible. His work highly immersive, and pushes us to consider what is hidden in the landscapes he aims to document "absence" on a human level. Whether through Cold-War era satellite film or heat maps, Mosse's films are emotive, kinetic, visually stimulating, and push the boundaries of the genre. We further implemented Mosse's aesthetic choices into our writing by discussing the invisible forces in our environment that we wanted to make known and tangible by utilizing writing's unique internality and freedom to craft identity. This week's exploration showed us that writing requires vulnerability, a willingness to dive into our character's fears, needs, and desires that can't be replicated in any other artistic medium.
Pam Houston'a narrative voice that is rife with passion, tenderness, and humor. Week 3, we looked at her essay "What Has Irony Done for Us Lately." In it, Houston recounts the life and death of her dog. She culminates what she calls 'glimmers' by immersing her readers through the senses. Readers visit Creed, Davis, and Red Mountain Creek; meet butchers and writers; and sit on the porch waiting for a Prius just like hers to arrive. Houston's prose crafts an immersive world that touches each character, animal, and location with the greatest empathy and connection. Houston understands that honesty resists ease and that the hardest truths come with allowing ourselves vulnerable and indubitably, incorrigibly flawed. There is much that we can gather from Houston's work, but one idea remains certain: among death and ecological destruction, there is a profound beauty in life and in what we can do for each other. At The Lab, we were encouraged to temporarily suspend irony (At this point Matthew chimes in: "Make sure they know I think irony is good! The Lab Loves Irony! But what might we learn about our characters if we willfully suspend it in favor of emotion and/or earnestness--at least for a draft?) Taking inspiration from Houston, we enter our character's minds, search for what they find beauty in, and allow humor to arrive organically. When are our characters hiding? When were we HIDING behind irony or placing ourselves at a distance when our own thematic concerns might be more artfully rendered or more effective felt without it? In my fiction, I want to feel the brunt force of my characters' emotions, and in order to do that, I must be willing to sit with them in grief and in beauty. This session has deepened my love for Pam Houston and will definitely stay with me for years to come.
Week 4 we dove deeper into our characters' realities through virulent investigation of our own lives, our unrealized possibilities, and the things that give us meaning. Our warm-up involved bridging the gap between ourselves and our characters by assigning two of our own unrealized possibilities to a fictional character. We began by pairing Lucia Perillo's "Say This" with a quote by Milan Kundera that asks us: where do we relate to our characters, and when do we diverge? In an ultra compact space, Perillo encapsulates the intricacies and profound mysteries of nature's design by magnifying the minute and mundane. Perillo juxtaposes contrasting elements that succinctly captures a reality that is equal parts grotesque and beautiful. Through powerful imagery and sonic fluidity, we experience the life of a spider and the death of a moth within two lines. Taking inspiration, we aimed for a similar horror/beauty ratio in hopes to capture the duality of our characters' lives and environment. For the second half of this session, we continued our study of reality by pairing a quote by J.G. Ballard with "The Peaches of August" by Toi Derricote. Derricote beautifully crafts many sides of intimacy by meditating on peaches. We are left to wonder about the speaker's reality. Ballard discusses "reality" as a culmination of fictions created by corporations and politicians, which reminds us that we construct our own realities in our writing, and in our lives. Perillo, Kundera, Derricote, and Ballard teach us that our identities are inseparable from the world around us: as we give objects, creatures, and places meaning, we allow ourselves irrevocably changed by them.
Here at The Lab, we search for magic in the mundane. Labbers read and listened to Haruki Murakami's "Barn Burning" in Session 5. Matthew used the New Yorker Podcast discussion featuring Deborah Treisman and writer Andrea Lee. Murakami captures the intricacies and oddities of life with intimate detail that casually veers into an alternate reality. He pulls inspiration from jazz, replicating the improvisational energy and flair in his story beats. Fans of Murakami know that by the end we are filled with more questions than answers, but nevertheless satisfied. For our warm-up, we wrote a list of subjects that our character considered innocent or evil. Murakami the mysteries of reality that get us to think about the nature of good and evil, and how we participate and influence others' lives. We meet a strange cast of characters from the perspective of a married man with obsessive, tangential thoughts: a young girl with a talent for miming, and her boyfriend who may or may not burn down barns. As the narrator interacts with specifics of the world around him, he finds himself constantly between the good/bad binary by partaking in both character's lives, gaining naivety and appetite for danger. This is where Murakami excels: creating a balance in character dynamics that gives them greater complexity, and thus draws in the reader. In the "Making of a Story" by Alice LaPlante, LaPlant writes that even when the narrator describes a story that seems to be about another person, the story is still about the narrator. It's through the rendering of information (even seemingly objective), that we interpret the characters from the narrator's unique perspective. Through this character's fluid morality, the reader questions: Is autonomy achievable? What is Truth? And from which perspective do we tell stories? We considered these questions as we wrote. Barn Burning also operates as a piece of metafiction that challenges us to think about our responsibility as writers. Is it enough to simply be a voyeur, or shall we investigate the abandoned barns ourselves?
For the last session of this cycle, we studied the late playwright, Maria Irene Fornes whose work and teachings have inspired a generation of writers. Coming to New York at fifteen with an elementary school education, Fornes emerged as one of the experimental theatre movement's most prolific artists with over 40 plays, 9 Obies, and a Pulitzer nomination. Despite the roaring accolades, Fornes was largely forgotten from Off-Broadway's history. "The Rest I Make Up" by Michelle Memran memorializes the artist in her 70s, taking us through her life with vivaciousness and humor. Fornes was an innovator, pioneer, and free-flowing force of nature with an irreplaceable sense of movement, dialogue, and emotional depth. Through her teachings, each new work, object, and moment is an opportunity for experimentation and expanding oneself from conventional ways of being. Fornes exemplifies this with her own openness and curiosity. The film goes through Fornes' daily comings in New York, her family in Cuba, past lovers, teachings, and struggles--among them, her journey with Alzheimer's in an ever-changing New York. For our last warm-up, we pulled inspiration from Fornes' who wrote: "I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up." In response, we asked ourselves: What do our characters know, and what do they think they know? Through learning about Fornes and her artistic innovation, I think about what I know about my characters, my writing, and myself. How can we push our work further and become more open, more engaged with life? How can we free ourselves from conventional ways of feeling? This tender documentary touches on so many aspects of the creative process and how we care for each other, I implore all creators and artists to watch it.
The Lab’s Instagram and Facebook Pages (links below) provide many more videos and photos (the ones above, were all taken by Kirsten), along with details of the books, the events, even the experiments we do at The Lab. It's eerie to see these, above. The group shot was taken on Week 6, before sheltering-in-place started in SF, but five or six folks stayed at home, worried they could be sick. Often I offer followers the writing prompts we use to warm-up in our sessions at The Lab. So if you’re not already hooked up there, consider it.
And finally, links to the interview and Devan's story below.
Can't wait to see you in person once that's safe again.