Wednesday, January 16, 2013


We were double guarded today. One guard watches, the other cleans. Kind of like life in Thunder Dome only without the fight to the death.

I chose to clean scum line. Bottle of Dawn. Tooth brush. Towel. You go the length of the pool, soaping and scrubbing the oxidized pudding of human skin, oil, lotion and aged cowstess urine that collects on the tiles. It’s hell on the knees, but good for the soul.  

So, I was thinking, as I was scrubbing, about writing. Deep point of view in a cage match with authorial distance. DPoV was first introduced to me a few weeks ago in my critique group. It's such a simple concept, really, but a real mind blower nonetheless.

Seemed sort of alien and against everything I was taught way back in the days of fancy book learnin'  in Miami.  Then, the idea of having an emotional inner life in your work was treated quite gingerly. Even in a first person narratives, you weren't supposed to give too much away, delve too deep into a character's head.

To be literary, the good writer had to step outside their characters, their situations, and keep them (and the reader) at an arms’ length. We writers were to observe and editorialize like some sort of literary Jane Goodall. Least that was the flavor du jour back then.

“The root word of Art,” my friend M said while we traded bong hits and watched golf one rainy Sunday afternoon in his Hollywood apartment, “Is Artifice.”

M went on to explain that artifice was good. All good fiction was skilled lying, and our job as writers was to present a perfected reality, an idealized truth free from messy human emotions. We were to present the salient truths of reality in concise narratives; to educate, to provoke, and to challenge the 'human condition' -- however, we were also to do this in such a subtle way that our readers wouldn't notice. 

Anything that didn't accomplish these very narrow, lofty goals was deemed  "not fiction." Keep in mind, this conversation took place back when there was still a big rift between literature and genre. There was just high end and low end, with nothing in between.

Personally, I was ambivalent about the distant narrator. I thought it had its uses, but I was  the workshop oddball back then.  I didn't want to be distant from my characters. I craved connection when I read. That connection was important. However, at the time, any form of emotional angle was deemed sentimental.

I went in wanting to write the lush, personal landscapes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, A.S. Byatt and Oscar Hijuelos. Take the divine Mambo Kings, the book that's right up there with Great Gatsby for me. It drove me mad with its music and passion and fire. I was alive in those worlds, not so much in the worlds presented by the likes of Raymond Carver, or Denis Johnson, Richard Price -- or any one of those hard edged, minimalist, intellectualists that my classmates strove to emulate.

But, what did I know? I was the student, so I sucked it up and got to work and eventually got pretty good as the airy, removed observer. Then I presented The Great American Punk Rock Novel to Mr. Big Shot Literary Agent from New York. He read it. He wasn't in love.

My manuscript was too cold. He couldn't connect, and "all the flashy, rock star writing"  wasn't doing it for him.  But... he said, it would be great if I could just connect with the main character. Make me care about him. Give me some emotion, please. Wait a second -- I thought this was literature? This was what I was supposed to be doing. But, then there was part of me that felt somewhat vindicated.

He must have misread the expression on my face, because he said, "I need to start a twelve step group for MFA survivors." He then said, "The next time you see your hero Richard Price tell him to kiss my ass..." 

I didn't have the heart to tell him my hero is actually Winston Churchill, but that's really beside the point.

To be fair, I don't hate the more removed, intellectual stuff as much as Mr. Big Shot seems to. It's just a different approach to creating art. It might not work for me -- in most cases -- but I can't dismiss it entirely. It can be fun to read and write. For God's sake -- is he telling me that something like The Wanderers isn't a great book?
But he's right. The distance doesn't work with the GAPRN. A book about punk rock simply can't be intellectual and airy. Punk is raw, vile, profane emotion. It's chunky power chords and bad refrains, cans of Aquanet and graveyard picnics.

In practicality, it boils down to world building. Even a familiar world like 1982 -- you've got to go deep. Anyone who straddled the 70s and 80s remembers the significance of 'punk' in those early days -- especially in Florida, when a glimpse of bright blue spiked hair and wrap sunglasses walking down the street was something exotic and frightening. Now Punk has become a virtual Baskin Robbins with at least 33 sub variants-- and not one of these wayward stepchildren have any connection to the originating movement. 

Personally, the grimy task of wading through the psyche of my maladjusted teenage protagonist is kind of exciting. The poet in me is itching to try to take on his emotions -- explosive, raw bursts of feeling.  

In fact, it's a lot like cleaning scum line -- and I'm not being sarcastic here. Apply the Dawn, suds it up, let it do its grease dissolving magic. Brush each checkerboard tile until the scunge dissolves. Marvel at the beautiful, true tile underneath. Move on to the next.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013



Had a guard shift today and was told by a club member that while she was swimming underwater past one of our shallow water aerobics classes she saw yellow halos surrounding several of the elderly female class members. Great. These old broads annoy me. Just a bunch of dopey cowstesses in their flowered suits, swishing their Styrofoam weights back and forth as they gossip and chatter -- all the while clouding up the water…

Thinking a lot about my career these days. I’ve got a real hard-on for my lost dream career as a trial lawyer. A psychic once told me he saw me going to Stetson University after high school. He was wrong. I went to Eckerd. HOWEVER. I rented a renovated horse barn in the nearby town of Gulfport (yes, the one with the casino!) and lived not a mile down the road from… duh duh DUH… Stetson Law School.

So, he was sort of right. What he really should have said was, “I see you going to a health club a mile from the Stetson campus. The gym will be called Body Dynamics, and the law students will consistently take up all the parking spaces out front with their red Porsches and flex a lot. You will not date a single one because they will all be unbelievably insipid jerks.”

I was in Gulfport because I was going to Eckerd College in nearby St. Petersburg. From 1989 to 1991, I was a fixture, albeit a stubby one, in their Creative Writing program. 

I was the short little blonde chick in Chuck Taylors and torn jeans who wrote about life as a small town punk rocker. I reeked of patchouli and clove cigarettes, bleached my hair and talked like a truck driver. My claim to fame, what made me bona fide, was that visiting author, James Michener, read my thesis -- which was my attempt at the Great American Punk Rock Novel -- and proclaimed to everyone in the program, "This girl has GOT IT! This should be published now!" 

Heady stuff to hear. So high was I that James Michener dug my stuff that I headed down to Miami to FIU and their esteemed MFA program. 

I promptly crashed and burned for a number of reasons. One, my mother was dying, that kind of threw a wrench into everything, and I was just too damned young to be there. The graduate level was hard core, and I felt ill prepared, voiceless and fraudulent. I shut down.

And the kicker -- I'd considered law school instead of FIU. I was kind of obsessed with Personal Injury law at the time (what young twenty something isn't?) and had fantasies of my face plastered across every bus bench and billboard in the Tampa Bay area -- but was talked out of it by my college mentor.

Looking back, I guess I should have really questioned the advice from a man who had also told me such gems as "Liz, never keep change in your wallet" and "Never mix vodka with beer."

But really, I probably would have washed out of law school for the same reasons.  I made it out alive, though, from grad school. Only I was asked to leave the fiction department and write poetry instead. That's what saved me, and killed me at the same time.

The switch to poetry was a little -- no, a lot -- like forced gender reassignment. Screwed me up for a long time and just gave fodder for the already growing, malignant self-destructive insecurity that would plague me for the next decade or so.

A little family history. It’s not my excuse, I promise. Just for insight.

I’m the daughter of a painter who never painted. My Dad was a promising, gifted artist with a lot of bad baggage in his head. He went to the famed Art Student’s League and palled around with the likes of Tom Tryon and Jackson Pollack (whom he lovingly dubbed Jack the Dripper for his penchant of peeing in house plants.)

Dad had been a hot shot illustrator back in the sixties when he worked on Mad Ave. He worked for several ad agencies, and had gotten his start illustrating pulp magazines as far back as the 40s. You can sometimes find his work on eBay. But he only let himself go so far.

But by the time I’d come along, Dad had moved to Florida and ran a series of failing businesses. Luckily, a small family fortune allowed him to do this indefinitely until he decided, at 77, to close up shop and go back to art school.

No, his career didn’t take off then. Sadly, it was more of the same. He’d paint, or really – he’d just sort of meander along through life until the boredom and ennui would get too much and he’d suddenly run down to Pearl in Miami (or on South Street when they'd moved to Philly to attend PAFA) and spend a few hundred dollars on art supplies to replace the ones he’d gotten a few months earlier.

Then, he’d spend a few days painting still lifes of fruit bowls, or the river, or of boat yards, and then get bored. He’d leave the canvases untouched until he’d throw them out, the paint would harden in their tubes. Not sure what demons drove him to constantly abort his dreams. But they did until the day he died. And like the good daughter I am, I’ve done the same damn thing.

So after grad school, I moved to Boston and spent the next ten years wandering a virtual desert. I worked for two high end financial houses and always felt like the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse. I looked great in power suits, had a lot of fun drinking and carousing with the 'normals'. Inside, I was lost. Dying.

I drank too much,  gained about twenty 'boredom pounds' and wondered when my ship would come in. This was always compounded by the fact that a good friend of mine from grad school had become an influential mystery writer, and I'd see his face on placards in the T.  Almost like a slightly admonishing angel reminding me of what I wasn't doing, and what I should have been doing.

I kinda sorta re-committed to writing as a way to keep my sanity in the cubicle world and it worked for a while. Like I always do, I fell in with a group of art school hipsters who collected action figures and watched edgy animated comedy and were some of the funniest, brightest people I knew. We spent a lot of time eating at greasy spoons and planning projects that never quite happened. But I was inspired, and I'd spend hours at my desk writing the first draft of the Great American Punk Rock Novel.

Then marriage and motherhood came, and I was living back in the suburbs of Florida. How the fuck did that happen?

And Dad? Well, he came to live near me in the 'burbs at an assisted living center and continued to follow his distractions but not his passions until he was felled by a series of mini strokes. My once vital, charming, articulate father was now a ghost of a man. The one thing he and I were not prepared for was the horror known as stroke speech. Stroke speech is a horrible thing. My Dad, who in his prime could best be described as a "silver-tongued jackass" was left fumbling for words.

He'd open his mouth and out would fly clouds of moths and butterflies. He struggled to say even the most rudimentary of sentences. Words, unrelated, mystifying, would just come out regardless of use or aptness. It was heartbreaking.
But one night, while I was watching TV with him, I noticed he was desperately trying to get my attention, to tell me something. His beautiful, pale blue eyes were tearing up. For every twenty words that made no sense in their placement, I was able to piece together the few that DID belong.

There were dreamers, he said to me. And there were doers. He was a dreamer. I was too. But we had to be doers. We had to do what we were put here to do. "Write," he said, finishing with "Do."
At least that's what I hoped he said. A few weeks later, a massive MRSA infection ravaged his body. I would find him dead after a long vigil at the hospice with my oldest brother.
Three weeks after, I competed in my first triathlon. It was an ordeal for a fat, middle aged haus frau. But I did it, and I was so jazzed after the experience, I figured, hell, if I could swim in a pitch black lake at six in the morning, I could finish my damned novel and brave the horrors of publishing.

It was all I needed to get me applying to the Writers In Paradise workshop at my alma mater, Eckerd College. There, I reconnected with my mentor and got some amazing, unexpected feedback on my manuscript.

I left the workshop on a massive high, determined more than ever to write and of course, promptly shut down. The pressure was just too much.  I floundered a bit, but still managed to cobble together another manuscript and attended the WIP in 2008. This time, the experience wasn't as great, but I ended up developing some amazing friendships that have continued five years hence.
Things are tough these days. I spend a lot of time living in the past thinking about what I should have done. Law school is a big fantasy. But then, so is EMT school, since I'm actually one hell of a first responder and an adrenaline junkie.  Both are safer than writing I tell myself.

Hell, I’m used to failure – it’s a comfortable place. But I hate it as well. But writing... damn, that's more than just a scary thing. It's a raw nightmare. Every insecurity laid bare and bleeding. At least the good stuff, that is.
And to top it all off, my Dad, who never wanted me to be a lawyer, keeps visiting me in my dreams saying, "Stop being a dreamer. Do."

I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be a writer. And writer’s write, don’t they? And the funny thing is? Most of the lawyers I know, and I know a ton, tell me they regret not becoming writers. Heh…

So… I’m sitting here on the guard stand and about to blow the whistle. I know what’s holding me back and I’m fixing to give myself the angry eyes and the barked warning, “No peeing in the pool.”

I don’t want to be a dopey old cowstess in a distressed floral bathing suit stewing in a halo of my own urine, and neither should you (if indeed there is a You who is reading this.)

Get to it. Don’t question. Don’t angst. Don’t hold back.  

Write. Or as my dad said, "Do."