Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Learning to Write

Clarity comes in disguise. I think.

I'd like to peel through the fog sometimes, to suck the very condensation out of the air as it creeps over Twin Peaks and into the city. I find myself in a writing program where I am reading, critiquing, editing, and editing; that is, doing everything except writing itself. I can't tell if what I'm feeling is more the mismatched alchemy of being back in school again after three years working, or maybe if I've somehow trained myself to instantly miss that which I no longer do. The comfort of routine is something so embedded in my bones that I don't know how else to shake it off. That, coupled with an inbred pressure to get a job, any job, to look ahead, to afford health insurance (that which shackles me and so many others to jobs we don't love), to be practical, pragmatic, responsible, efficient.

I want to learn how becoming a better writer will solve all that. And the thing is, that's a tall order. Expecting some mind-altering short story or career-launching novel to suddenly give birth in my brain is a little like hoping, no, demanding, our current president to solve all the world's problems. Now that he's got a Nobel Peace Prize, he can get down to the nitty-gritty and actually be that change he promised us last year. Right?

Ever since I quit my job to start grad school, I find myself waking up every weekday with a hummingbird's heartbeat. The first thought on my mind is to get shit done. This is motivating, yes, and sometimes crazy-making. My dad always jokes that if I were a dog, I'd be a sheepherder, because I always need a job to do. The irony is that good writing is the one task that is really difficult to instantly produce. Coffee--that I know how to make quickly. I can answer phones. I can improvise a short lesson. But how does one demand creativity of oneself? The demand itself can kill an idea.

One way I've tried to jumpstart my creative brain is to take on multiple side projects. Every Monday I volunteer at KALW 91.7, a radio station based out of Philip Burton High School here in San Francisco. Every week, a team of reporters and volunteers produce Crosscurrents, a half-hour segment devoted to culture, context and connection in the Bay Area. I've done a few short interviews, have learned to use the recorders and hope to learn ProTools in the coming weeks.

I've also started blogging for Eduify, a start-up company whose aim is to use social networking to help high school and college students improve their writing. Writing these posts forces me to focus in on exactly I want to know as a writer myself, and what resources out there will help me and others develop. So far I've written two Halloween-themed piece (one on zombie romantic comedies, the other on Edgar Allan Poe), and interviewed children's book author and poet April Halprin Wayland. I've since done two other interviews, and will be interviewing a few more writers in the coming weeks.

All this to say that sometimes the things we want most desperately are the things we must go out and create on our own. Which is why I've always wanted to be a writer, and why at the same time it is a very hard thing to be. I saw music critic and radio host Greg Kot speak this past Friday at the Booksmith. His new book, Ripped, covers the revolution that has occurred in the music industry in the past ten years. Kot's main message was that the best artists are the ones who love what they do so much that they see their art as something they simply must do. Music as oxygen. Words--the continuation of our fingers. That's the urgency I feel when I get up in the morning: the need to do, to be, to act, to write.

And who knows? One of these days, maybe all these actions will add up. Until then, I'll keep my eyes on the horizon.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Missed Connections on MUNI

"Missed connections" has many meanings in San Francisco. Before you get any ideas, you should know that I only use Craiglist for job postings and contest announcements.

I was on my way home from school late last night when I experienced a twenty-first century faux paus. My literary magazine class goes fairly late on Wednesday nights, and so I've gotten accustomed to the seeming anonymity of public transit on weekday evenings. Anyone who lives in an urban area will tell you that, like possums and raccoons, the city's best characters come out at night. And they ride MUNI.

Since living in San Francisco, I have acquired the dubious habit of wearing an iPod everywhere I go. My intention is never to shut out the outside world, nor is it to live blissfully unaware of those around me. Rather, I've found that the 45 minutes I spend on buses or trains every day is the best time to catch up on news, podcasts, and all the new music I've downloaded from library cds. It should be known that I've recently developed a particular affinity for comedy-themed podcasts, if anything because when spending so much time alone, it is nice to feel like there's something outside my head to laugh at.

So: Wednesday night, 10 pm, I'm riding the M line from SFSU to Balboa Park, listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!, a podcast that features the Sound of Young America's Jesse Thorn and Fuel TV's Jordan Morris. It's late, my eyelids are at half-mast, and I'm giggling. Enter Random Inebriated Young Man, stage left.

He spots my stupid smile and sits down next to me. I disregard him and continue to giggle. Oh, Jordan. Oh, Jesse. I turn up the volume on my headphones when it seems that Random Inebriated Young Man wants to talk. He motions that I take off my headphones. I refuse, still smiling. He mouths his words, and they are easy to make out:

"Hey, hey, honey, that smile for me?"

I don't reply, choosing instead to look the other way and continue giggling.

"That smile's for me, yeah?"

I nod "no." Sorry buddy.

"No?" He opens his red eyes wider. There's no way this guy is sober. He reaches down and pulls up the arm of his shirt, exposing his biceps. He flexes, kisses his arm.

"You like that, yeah?"

I can't help it; I giggle.


I nod "no."

He puffs out his chest, grabs his pecs.

"You like this instead?"

I nod a halfway committed "no," try instead turning my knees so I'm facing the opposite way.

"Hey girl, we got a black president, you oughta have a black man!"

Who wouldn't giggle at this point? I try to give the appearance that I neither disapprove nor approve; to be true, I'm all for dating anyone interesting. Operative word: interesting.

At this point he gets up and walks to the other side of train. I sigh, relax; he's off to bug someone else. I tune out. Amazingly, the giggles disappear.

Two minutes later, he's back, this time offering me a Fig Newton.

"You want one?"

I smile, nod "no."

"What? Hey, I'll give you a choice: eat a cookie, or take me!"

I nod again. Not sure how it's possible, but his eyes look redder this time.

"You smilin for me?"

I sigh. He's one of those sad dudes who thinks that an uninterested girl is just one who hasn't yet been convinced of his finer virtues.

"I got it!" He snaps his fingers. "'re high, aren't you?"

I giggle. This does not help my case.

"Yes! You like to smoke some doobie, am I right?"

I giggle and nod "no" at the same time.

"Aw, whatever girl, you're totally high." He leans in and sniffs the air around my head. "I can smell it from here."

I snort involuntarily and am relieved when I hear the driver yell, "Final stop!"

I jump up quickly and say, "See ya!" I cross the street quickly and hear him say "What, no number or nothin'?!" as the doors close.

Oh, MUNI. Oh, characters of the night. Fodder for the creative mind, all of us.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Family History, Captured

My mother and aunt grew up on a walnut farm in Yuba City, California. On Christmas Day 1955, their farm was destroyed in a catastrophic flood. My grandfather, Leahn Halprin, who was an art student at UC Berkeley before he inherited his father's farm, filmed the aftermath of the flood. Recently, my aunt April dug up some of her dad's old 16mm film reels and had them converted to digital files. Chuck Smith, a Sutter County official, put together the following YouTube montage:

This haunting footage is a tribute both to the land which raised my family, and to my grandfather and the artistry with which he approached the earth. I watched this in between writing papers at work, and as the chilling guitar melodies echoed throughout the empty room, I felt for a moment that I had been transported back in time. This was another generation's reality. This destruction was later repeated, twice in the 1980s, and twice in the 1990s, during El Nino. I keep wondering how my grandfather kept his hand so still, and wanting so badly for him to turn it and wave at the camera.