Tuesday, November 27, 2012

one hundred word story #101

The girl had been living in the staff lounge three weeks before they found her stash. She’d bundled her jeans and sweaters behind the biggest lounge sofa and stuffed granola bars and candy wrappers beneath couch cushions. The office building was brand new; they’d only just furnished the third floor. All the administrators worked behind locked doors. “Does she work here?” the building manager asked, watching as the small woman put on her hat and slunk outside. “No,” said the janitor. “But how did she get in?” the manager pressed. “The same way you did,” the janitor said. “She applied.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Isn't it ironic

My childhood: a study in unironic tie-dye.

Remember when irony wasn't a thing? Or if it was a thing, it was a dramatic thing? Saved only for moments of sheer theatricality. So far as I know, it didn't come in the form of skinny jeans and mustaches and vinyl and expensive espresso. Somewhere along the way, irony came to replace nostalgia and sentimentality. It was a way of recalling the past by making fun of it. It's something we all do, almost mechanically.

I recall an old friend from abroad whose layers of sarcasm were piled so thick that I could rarely understand what he was saying. There were jokes, but they were dark, and there were cutting, knowing observations, and there was bitterness, and there was anger, and at the very heart of it all, a kind of sadness so entirely swaddled in emotion that it would spill out at the most unexpected moments, little bursts of honesty that when unfurled, would wipe away all the bullshit. It was those moments that made him my friend. There was a brilliance to the way he cloaked it all in, an irony to his self-deprecation and occasional malevolence, and yet it was an irony I have yet to truly understand.

I wonder, though, if things in him had settled, and if all the caustic one-liners were swept away, if we had been better friends.

I've written before that irony is a thing that emerged in my generation in response to eight years of George W. Bush. I still believe this, and feel within me a deep-seated sense of political unrest whenever I think of those eight long years. Perhaps because that era is over, and because my personal life has achieved some semblance of stability, I don't burn with that glimmer of political dramatics the way I once did.

It's still curious, then, that during that period irony transformed into a cultural aesthetic, one that can be spotted cycling through San Francisco's Mission District on a fixie, sipping a four-dollar espresso, sporting expensive jeans with carefully-torn holes on the knees. But I could be wrong; surely I am. Some of them wear tie-dye.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The wild rumpus

I saw Stephen Elliott read tonight. He read a lot of beautiful words, one after the other. He read from The Adderall Diaries and the screenplay-in-progress for Happy Baby, a film based on his novel of the same name. I wish I could remember the delicate and abrupt way the words turned. But instead I remember this: sitting in the front row watching him describe what it meant to write nonfiction.

"When you're in your twenties, you are so worried what everyone else thinks about you," he said. "When you're in your thirties, you don't care what they think. When you're in your forties, you realize they were never thinking about you at all."

I've heard versions of this over the years, from teachers, writers, friends. But tonight I heard it differently. I thought of how much I long not only for the impulse to write, but the knowledge that I have something actual to say. I spend my days reading and re-reading and editing and revising technical texts that have the practical strength to make things happen, the same way a recipe writer jots down precise instructions for other chefs to follow. But when it comes time to write my own things, to spoon up my own emotional grit, I keep feeling like I'm coming up empty.

I know why it's happening, too. It is the obsession that writers sometimes have that someone is already looking over your shoulder, that each word must impress, that an idea must be fully formed before it is worth, well, anything. When I was a teenager, I'd sneak into my parents' den to write on our family computer, and anytime someone opened the door, I'd growl. They'd never be there to snoop; half the time they wouldn't even notice I was writing until I'd snapped in my chair. That's the great paradox about writing; nobody cares that you are a writer until you have written, and why shouldn't they? Few people are as impressed by someone training for a marathon as they are by someone who has just completed one, in record time, no less.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that all I seem to write about these days is how much I want to write.

It's similar to the desire for immersion. You want to understand the words, the cultural cues, the accents, the subtlety of exchange, before you can even conjugate the verbs. The only way to learn is to let yourself be helpless; to hang in limbo, not knowing if what you're saying is absolute crap, or culturally insensitive, or idiotic, or just plain unintelligible, until the day comes that you actually stop thinking about the words themselves, and instead you focus on the meaning behind them.

And that is what I learned (or, rather, learned again) from Stephen Elliott.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The gospel of stories

"When he was a small boy his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East, told them and re-told them and re-made them and re-invented them in his own way--the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, stories told against death to prove the ability of stories to civilize and overcome even the most murderous of tyrants; and the animal fables of the Panchatantra; and the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara, the 'Ocean of the Streams of Story,' the immense story-lake created in Kashmir where his ancestors had been born; and the tales of mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama and the Adventures of Hatim Tai...To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no "real" genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father's, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away."

--Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie