November 2009 Blog Update
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Lots of great stuff has happened since my last update and I’ll get to that, I promise. But first, let me get the business out of the way:
“Start Your New Year Off Write/The Douglass Street Lab’s Greatest Hits” will begin on January 19th. My former students from The Douglass Street Lab have been telling me and emailing me their votes on the most provocative individual experiments. I’m narrowing down and tightening up the eight writing prompts that gleaned the most surprising turns in our fiction and memoir. It’ll be good for those who’ve taken The Lab before, but I hope it’ll be especially good for those who’d like to sign up for the first time. There are still openings, and I’d love to have you. Check out the cool pictures of Mark (the host)’s gorgeous home on Facebook.
Do you need inexpensive Holiday gifts for the literary types on your list? If so, I’d highly encourage you, on behalf of the incredibly hard-working staff of Fourteen Hills, to check out the 2009 Michael Rubin Book Award Winner Daniel W. Lichtenberg. His book is called The Ancient Book of Hip and it’s among the most original and surprising books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a hybrid of poetry and prose and it’s both entertaining and surprising. I love books that make me think—but I love even more books that make me feel. His book does both. And it makes me laugh. But it’s serious, too! It’s available through SPD. Buy it here.
The new issue of Fourteen Hills is also about to be released. You can come hear some of the writers at the release party on December 16th at the San Francisco Motorcycle Club. This issue is visually stunning and the work in it will please all of the word nerds in your life. You can buy it through SPD or you can subscribe here. Either way, come to the party. It’ll be fun. And it’s free. More info on the address/time/readers here.
Onto the good news: Three of my trusted readers have read my now-completed manuscript. One of the three is my agent. All of them gave me the green light. It was a nerve-wracking prospect because I hadn’t asked for a one word of critical feedback on the manuscript as it was being written. Which wasn’t easy. The thing took almost five years. That was a first for me. I'd received so much feedback on my work both as an undergraduate creative writing major and an MFA student. Then I had the world’s best writing group for over five years. We met every Friday and limited our personal check-in time to one minute (unless our week’s news was writing related, in which case you were allowed to go slightly over). I was the only male member of the original group, so we called ourselves Steel Magnolias. Katie, one of the members liked the name until she rented the movie. I needed every bit of that feedback on my stories and my first two attempts at novels. This one was different. As I was writing it, I knew enough about it to know that I didn’t want feedback and there was enough I didn’t know that I knew I didn’t want feedback. I was wary of reactions and suggestions before I had discovered for myself the trajectory of the story and its themes. Back to Steel Magnolias.
Ok. It may not have been the best movie on earth but something that came out of that movie totally changed my life. Oprah interviewed the cast of the movie and several of the actresses lamented about how hot it had been on the shoot. The way I remember it, Oprah listened to the details about how hot it had been on set and Dolly Parton said nothing. Oprah turned to her and said, “Dolly, you’re the one who had to wear all those big wigs and all those layers. Weren’t you hot?” And Dolly Parton looked at Oprah, paused, then said, “When I was a little girl growin’ up in the backwoods of Tennessee I wanted to be a famous country western singer and a movie star. Now I’m a country western singer and a movie star and I’m not going to complain about the weather.”
In a recent conversation with my mother and a friend she's known for forty-five years, we all talked about the teachers who had an influence on us even when we didn’t know it at the time. I’ve had a lot of great teachers. But with most of them I’ve known how great they were even during the “during phase.” With some of them, I’ve had the pleasure of having time-delayed double-appreciation for what I’d already appreciated.
I had a high-school art teacher named Mrs. Fitz. Anyone who knows me knows that I dropped out of high school when I was fifteen. And I only attended a tiny portion of my freshman year so I couldn’t have been in her class more than a dozen times. My high school felt like an entirely hostile environment—students and faculty included—so I’d given up on any attempt to gain anyone’s acceptance or approval. Instead I rebelled, refusing any help. I don’t know if Mrs. Fitz ever even noticed me. But I noticed her. She came to our small-town conservative Massachusetts school with her spiked hair. She wore layered outfits that looked like a cross between Pat Benetar and Stevie Nicks. She called herself an artist and her teaching style reminded me of Debbie Allen’s character on the television show Fame.
Memory is imperfect, and my filters of that time were incredibly emotional and hormonal, so I’m not stating any of this as objective fact. I remember her talking to the people in the room who were most interested in what she had to offer. She didn’t exclude anyone or ignore anyone—but drew people in with her passion for the subject. To appear on her radar one needed to take risks and show some passion of one’s own. I was already too far gone. I’d hatched a plan to run away and return to California and make it as an actor. I didn’t want small town art classes. I judged her and everyone else I liked before they could judge me. I’m not sure she and I ever even had a one on one conversation. I do, however, have an awareness of how often I thought of her over the years. I wondered what it was like to be her. There. In that town. I wondered if she were married or single or if she had a boy or girl friend. I wondered if she’d sensed my gayness. (After all, didn’t all artistic people have advanced gaydar?) I’ve thought about her when in museums or when playing with clay with my nieces and any time I’ve ever attempted to sketch something on paper (a town square, an apartment’s floor plan, an outfit that I’ve needed to see first on paper in order to describe in a story). She once told me a sketch I drew of a mouse sticking his head out of a hole in a triangular piece of Swiss cheese had good shadowing. I’ve never forgotten her or it.
Why? She taught me that having a life as an artist is a possibility. It didn’t matter where you lived. It’s how you lived. What mattered was how you saw the world and how you responded to it.
Things have been tough this semester at SF State with the cutbacks, and word is that it’ll get worse before it gets better. But I’m not going to complain. Why? When I was a little boy sitting on a rock looking up at the stars in a small town in Massachusetts, all I wanted was to be around people who made art with words or paper or their bodies. I wanted to make my living not as a truck driver or a computer programmer or a waiter (all jobs held by people I loved), but as an artist. And now I’m making my living as an artist and I’m not going to complain about a couple of cutbacks.
I few weeks ago I wanted to complain about the classes I’m teaching to forth and fifth graders and at an afterschool middle-school program. But I held my tongue. And I’m glad I did. Not only because they’re starting to trust me, to open up and actually write stuff down, but because during this conversation with my mother and her friend I realized that being a teacher has nothing to do with getting the results I want to see. It’s about presenting possibilities. These classes through Performing Arts Workshop are the most challenging I’ve taught. Or maybe it just seems like that because I’ve been teaching the others for a while and I’ve gotten more used to them. At any rate, they make me feel alive.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. By the time this goes up it will be the Monday after. I’m writing this from Mendocino where my mother and I have spent the week driving up and down Highway 1 stopping to eat sushi and Thai spring rolls and avocados on benches overlooking cliffs that drop into the bright blue Pacific. I was raised in California before my father was transferred to Massachusetts and my parents took my brothers and me along this coast when we were kids. It’s quite a sensation to revisit this area with my mom. She with her head of hair as white as the wave caps and me with my baldhead and graying beard. On days like today it seems like all of it makes sense and no matter what happens it’ll be okay. Or not. And either way, everything will continue on.