Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

For only love can conquer hate

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I just looked at my most recent post and, damn, if you made it through all those photos, you’re far more patient than I. I shot them and curated them and it was too many for me to get through. But it was too many because the day, the event, was so rich and full that it was impossible to encapsulate without showing the whole picture.

The whole picture was a thing of beauty and love. The whole picture was people of every size, shape, race, religion, gender, non-gender, and whatever other categories we put ourselves in … this was about love in all its many splendored glory.

And every person walking in that parade, and most every person on the sidelines and rooftops, believes passionately in the spirit of the day.

I am a proud supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t, even if I didn’t have the lexicon to express it. I’ve thought about this a lot. Perhaps it’s because I “grew up” (and some would argue that I’ve yet to do that) in the entertainment industry and I’ve known people who by-the-way are gay my entire life. Maybe it’s because I’m intrinsically accepting of the human condition, by which I mean the condition of being human; I am not referring to sexuality or gender as a “condition”. Whatever the case may be, the fact that compassion and acceptance for others are still debatable is the most inconvenient truth I can imagine.

If that was overly wordy, please know that I awoke at my normal time of 3AM and this time I didn’t get right back to sleep. I will sleep for one more hour once I post this thang. Then Dog and I have morning appointments and I have work to do.

I don’t attend Pride every year, though for the past six, my dear friends M&M have come up from Florida and stayed with me in order to attend (and to see me, and to love New York, which they do better than most people I know). I decided to go because this year is one of the more significant. This year we are getting ready to elect a new president, and I can’t even delve into that. The thought of what may come chills me to the bone. I don’t agree with everything Hillary has ever said but I agree with most of her policies now and I like her and I respect her and I support her. That the other option “may not be as bad as he tells the world he is” – which I’ve heard from many people and news outlets – I can’t. He is as bad. And so, so much worse. I promise.

This is why I can’t delve into politics on social media. If you were my friend in 2008, you know what I’m talking about. I was … passionate … about politics that year.

However, I was comforted by the “Republicans for Hillary” movement I saw well-represented at the parade on Sunday.

Beyond the election, there’s Orlando, obviously. There’s the fact that we can now add this to the list of “If gun laws didn’t change after ____ then what will it take?!”

There’s the fact that a man in my neighborhood, Chelsea, which has one of the more established gay communities in the country, was beaten up recently in what cops call a hate crime.

I just don’t fucking get it. That I don’t get beating someone up in the first place is a foregone conclusion. I just don’t get why gay/straight black/white female/male and any other either/or that assumes one half is “less than” is even a thing, as they say.

But it is.

And then, in uplifting news, there’s the fact that the National Park Service just declared Stonewall Inn and the park in front of it national landmarks.

I’m a proud supporter of humanity.

 

 

I bought a ticket to the world

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On the advice of the wise and wonderful Ginger, I got myself a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine. The first issue arrived and, despite the fact that it looks like it was delivered by bored, rabid ferrets who were building an addition to their nest, it’s exactly what I need right now. It’s all about the beginning … the first sentence, the first chapter, and so on. Since I’m pretty much reinventing the book, I have the opportunity to craft a stellar beginning. I liked my original one, but I absolutely understand why it was bogging this thing down.

In beginning my story on what was once page 129, I have the incredibly challenging task of incorporating back story — which was once, simply, “story” — into my new beginning, and there’s an article on that, too. The main takeaway from this article is that back story needn’t be spelled out as explicitly as one might think; it can be hinted at in the way characters behave in the present, in their motivations, wishes, fears, and so on.

I’ve written before about “killing your darlings” — and in this case, I’ve outright massacred mine. But this does not mean their lives were in vain: I needed to write out 129 pages of ponderous, stagnant back story in order to learn who my characters are and why they are that way.

Now my task is to tie it all together into something that bears vague resemblance to a book. With a plot. And an arc.

What have I gotten myself into?!

In addition to the print version, a subscription to WD includes access to a wealth of content on their website. One of today’s pieces was on fact in fiction, on how, if one is well-versed in a particular topic, and a fiction writer has not done his/her research, it can be hard to accept the rest of the world that he/she has created.

A lot of creative folk had a hard time writing/painting/sculpting/dancing/singing about 9-11. I read a fair amount of contemporary literature in the years after it happened, and it was quite a while before I read a book that referenced it. The first one I did was The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, which came out five years after the fact.

I loved the way she touched on 9-11 … nothing gratuitous, nothing repetitive to those who lived through it. She wrote elegantly of the mood in NY in the hours and days after the planes, and I appreciated the way she handled it.

However … there was one “fact” she ignored, and I hesitate to say that because there is no wrong in fiction. But it struck me then and has stayed with me.

The night of 9-10-01, one of her characters goes on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and sees the lights and the city and I don’t recall what else. Anyone who lived here then will recall that on the night of 9-10 we had a torrential downpour. A deluge, the kind that upends umbrellas and ruins shoes and is enchanting to those of us who love rain, no matter how inconvenient. And so it was especially stunning how perfect the next morning felt, how crisp and clear and bright the skies. And then, they did their thing and you know the rest.

So add to the myriad reasons it takes me so long to get through a paragraph in this book I’m trying to write the fact that I do not want to take such a liberty. I’m already doing so by making the summer of 1999 a particularly rainy one and throwing a massive power outage in for good measure. (and to further the plot). But where very tangible specifics are concerned, I’m getting in my own fiction-writing way.

Any excuse to keep from churning out another draft from which to create the final one.

My bestest friend and I are writing a tv pilot loosely based on our awkward, misfit selves in the 80s. This is a breath of fresh air from the book. It’s work, it’s challenging, it requires letting go of ego and perfectionism and impatience and indulging in the process. And we’re doing it together, which is the best part. There’s strength in numbers.

Book-writing’s a lonely business. Bear with me while I figure it all out.

 

 

Here by the sea and and, nothing ever goes as planned

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Some merry prankster has taken to writing the words “Bad Luck Spot” in chalk on the street corners by my house. Thanks, buddy. I’m way too superstitious for that. It’s a bizarre little enclave Lou and I live in; the gas station down the road has been temporarily usurped by an “art” installation – there is a white picket fence around it, a few dozen metal sheep, rams and lambs (are these one and the same? I do not know) grazing on astroturf, and a man in head-to-toe black holding a clipboard. The man is real. Maybe the grass is, too. The farm life is definitely not.

This has been a week of things not-quite-going-as-expected: shifted plans, chance encounters, interesting strangers. Today I escorted a visually impaired man to the Verizon store, where I was headed as well; this is the third or fourth time I’ve had occasion to do this. Once it happened while I was fortunate enough to be visiting Paris, beautiful, magical Paris; a blind woman asked me to escort her out of the metro. As we’ve established, I’m afraid of heights and, much to the dismay of anyone who’s been to an airport or shopping mall with me, terrified of escalators — I much prefer the stairs. This was one of these metro stations with a fifteen-story vertical escalator, and the woman grabbed me and asked for assistance just as I was bypassing it. I couldn’t summon the French for “debilitating, irrational fear of moving stairs,” and so I clung to her for dear life and made petite-talk for the 12-minute ride. It was all at once a good deed and extreme sport.

A friend used to tease me that my greatest fear would be riding an escalator without mascara. Which is ridiculous; I’d be fine with just eyeliner. 

So … I might be published in the New York Times! Yep. In the past couple of days I’ve submitted a question/complaint to the Social Q’s column and a found haiku to Metropolitan Diary. Hey, a byline’s a byline – even if every grandparent-of-a-precocious-child-who-takes-public-transport gets one in the Diary.

I am learning a tremendous amount, this year, about how to live in this world. And, as I’ve said aloud to a couple of people in the past few days, my life has been infused with a lot more color than it used to be – in my decor, my wardrobe, my experiences and relationships. What a difference it makes; I spent April 2011 – April 2012 in a series of casts for a fractured scapula (look it up, too tired to explain); because I was x-rayed regularly my cast was changed regularly, and the day I opted for a fuchsia one instead of the standard bone-white, my mood improved dramatically. You learn a lot about human nature when you spend a year in a cast – particularly how intrusive strangers can be. I can’t imagine seeing someone with a broken bone (or black eye or gaping wound) and asking for an explanation, but an amazing number of people NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!! At first I would explain, in painstaking detail, my official version of events, but I soon learned that if I just said “accident” people would seldom ask me to elaborate. I also learned in that year to type very quickly with one hand (insert obligatory internet porn joke). 

Alright then. I had intended to write about something entirely different, had been thinking about it since this morning, but here by the sea and sand …

Buenas noches a todos. 

 

 

The littlest things that take me there

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In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, the titles of these posts are lyrics from songs I like that may or may not be pertinent to the writing that follows. 

Now then. 

A few months after I graduated from college, the summer before my freshman year of life, I was in a place of great uncertainty. Like most of us, I assume. I had gotten a Bachelor of Arts in the ultra-employable double major of English Lit and French. No, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I’d sort of grown up around show business and had a brief flirtation with moving to LA to work at an agency that had just opened there, but I let that one go. I was living more or less alone in the house I’d grown up in in the suburbs, a house that was an albatross for my parents until it finally sold some years later. I commuted up and down the West Side Highway (I drove!) to a job as a production assistant on a short lived talk show hosted by Dr. Ruth. The show was called “Never Too Late” and each episode featured guests who had changed the courses of their lives well into their adult years. It wasn’t about sex, yet somehow it managed to often be about sex. My job entailed things like reading “People” magazine and tracking down the world’s oldest waterskier, babysitting Al Roker’s daughter in the green room, ironing Rue McClanahan’s skirt – it was a glamour job. It would be over at the end of that summer and then I had no idea what was next. I felt lost between a college I’d never really fit into and a completely uncharted life whose purpose was a mystery to me. 

A childhood friend hosted an annual end-of-August party, and that year I had a long conversation with the host’s college friend, who was (is) deaf, very smart, and excellent at reading lips. We talked about what we were doing now that school had ended and I expressed my fears and uncertainties – they hadn’t yet manifested in the bout of depression that would take hold a few months later. I remember this conversation well. The friend – Josh – told me his philosophies on life, one of which has stayed with me over the decades. He said, “I define good days differently than most people” – this was in part, he said, because he’d had more to overcome than many people he knew. He said, “If I have a good conversation with a friend, it’s a good day. If I get to be outside in the sun, it’s a good day.”

In the spirit of Josh’s wisdom, this has been a good day thus far. I finished a draft of my dark and weird short story. I set up a few work-related meetings. I got a response to a query I put out about a project I’m sort of working on (vague enough?). Louie and I took a walk and ran into an old friend and her 1 1/2-year-old son. I drank coffee and read the paper. I had a good conversation with my sister. I gave directions to a lost tourist (it’s the little things!). I did an important errand, and … I got a library card.

A library card! Remember those?!

I can’t recall the last time I had one, but they still give them out. The little branch of the NYPL on my street, the Muhlenberg branch, has about as many books as I do, but I found some good ones and checked them out FREE and I get to keep them for three weeks. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do this, but I’m in a big reading phase right now so it makes sense. This is one of those things that the interns in my office probably have little to no concept of, like postage stamps, landlines, and albums — record and photo. 

This past weekend I climbed a mountain – to me it’s a mountain, to others it’s a gentle slope – and considering my lifelong fear of heights and of scaling cliff-like things, this is quite an accomplishment. I also went apple-picking, which I’d never done before (I know!). At the end of each calendar year, I make a list of things I did for the first time over the preceding twelve months. A few years ago the list including salsa-dancing in the street and snorkeling in the ocean. This year’s will include the aforementioned, as well as: attending a music festival, visiting Budapest, submitting a book proposal, keeping plants alive for more than a month, and making a quiche. Three more months to add to that list. Three more months of potentially good days. 

I’m in love with that song

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Yesterday on the street I passed someone I knew another lifetime ago, someone I hadn’t seen since I moved from 9th Street. She is part of the fabric of this town, a lifelong New Yorker now in her 80s with stories and secrets whose surfaces I only skimmed during the five years I knew her. She was an integral part of Louie’s first few years, and she helped me immensely during a very difficult time when I couldn’t always find the energy to take care of my dog. For this I will always be grateful. I didn’t stop her – she was doing her thing, we had somewhere to be, and I’m not sure how much catching up we really need to do. But it was strange and comforting to see her still thriving in her very unique manner of thriving.

Last week, or maybe the one before, while Louie and I sat on the bench outside Joe’s and drank our (my) coffee, a gentleman sat down and struck up what seemed an innocuous conversation. The dog, the weather, the neighborhood. In the thirty minutes I knew him he told me a lot — strangers do this with me. Stranger is not the right word. He’s in Chelsea only temporarily while he waits for his apartment on the east side to be renovated; it was destroyed in an electrical fire almost a year ago. He divides his time between his friend’s place in Chelsea and his home in Hartford, Connecticut. He inherited this home from his now-deceased partner of several decades; they met in a gay bar in the West Village in the late 70s. They built a life together, alternating between the city and Hartford, where his partner was an architect and adjunct professor at the university. His partner died of a heart attack a year and a half ago, while my momentary friend was on the train heading up for a visit. He told me how hard it is knowing that he’d taken his time, that he might have been able to save him, that he didn’t get to say goodbye but was the one who had to identify the body and call his love’s children and ex-wife. He told me his love was a packrat, a borderline hoarder, and now he doesn’t know what to do with all the stuff. Everything has meaning; he remembers where they bought it and why, how they acquired it and when. He apologized for burdening me. I asked if he minded my follow-up questions and he said he appreciated them. I assured him that he was absolutely not burdening me, explained that I’m the “feeler” in my immediate family — not that the others are cold or unfeeling, but they aren’t comfortable with talking about the dark side of life, death being the darkest side of all. I have had to become comfortable with it because I’ve had to become all too aware of it – nothing I would wish for, certainly, but ignoring it doesn’t really allay my fears or expedite the grieving process. Some people, like this man (James), want to be asked about their departed loved ones, want to talk about what happened and how they feel and what they’re going to do next. If one believes these things, and I do, there’s a reason we got coffee at the same time and the bench was free when it was and the weather was such that we had something to talk about beyond what a good looking guy my dog is. I served a purpose for those however-many minutes, and I am grateful that I did. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger whom you’ll likely never see again about the things that matter. I guess. I need to talk to the people in my life in order to feel like what I have to say matters.

Beautiful weekend this past one was, combining some of my favorite things – travel and music and good food and new friends and comfort and weather and light. And love, in all its many, many manifestations.

May the bad times be fleeting, et laissez les bons temps rouler.