Kill The Butterfly

July 2016. I’m at the Creekstone Inn in Idyllwild, California. A bed and breakfast place with a lodge feel to it: old lady furniture, the smell of wood and jacuzzi tubs in every room. In the lobby three French women are drinking and playing pool and I want to be one of them but I’m trying to write instead.

I’ve spent the last six days at Idyllwild Arts Writers Week in a bunk with three other fellowship recipients. All women. Two poets and a nonfiction writer. We travelled in a pack all week and probably seemed clique-y but the truth is we just had no privacy so summer camp inevitabilities took hold.

Idyllwild Arts is actually a residential high school during the year. Everywhere you walk on campus you hear horn players warming up, you see paintings plastered on walls, sculptures tucked between buildings, kids with cameras studying how light falls, girls in ballet tights moving through the cafeteria with perfect posture.



My workshop leader was Samantha Dunn who is also my editor at Coast (I write a book round-up called Shelf-Awareness). On the second day of class, after several ice breakers and writing exercises and fun, I finally asked her about the real shit.

I loved playing with the prompts, I said but wanted to know how she approaches her work when she’s got a full draft and is doing major surgery, that part of writing that is endless decision-making and analysis. The ruthless part.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“I get weird,” she said.

The class laughed a little.

“I do. I get weird,” she said. “I get up, I move around the room, I listen to Tom Waits. I do whatever it takes.”

Something clicked when she said this. It felt like she was giving us permission to make a mess.


An eye I drew from a plaster model during Jane Bauman’s class at Coastline Community College in Newport Beach

Writing does not seem messy the way painting can seem messy, the way working on a student film can feel messy, the way my left hand is smeared with graphite when I draw. Writing is the opposite of tactile at times. You’re a million miles away on another planet while you work.

In 2015 I got so depressed I didn’t write for several months so I took a drawing class to trick my brain into a hard reset. Each class my instructor Jane Bauman would plop a model in front of us and force us to confront the figure. The expectations were simple: we were supposed to make a mark and deal with it’s inevitable imperfection.

David Ulin addresses this failure in one of my favorite essays on writing from the Paris Review:

“…writing…remains an unsteady process, a balancing act between expectation and an almost willful lack of expectation, between my aspiration and my failure, between what I want and what I cannot do….I’m familiar with this now…but then, it used to drive me crazy, the imperfection that sets in with the first written word.”

During his talk on structure at Idyllwild, Ulin talked about the need to transmit narrative without getting in its way. He quoted Burrows who said all that writers need to do is “function as the recording entity” and made me think of that brief foray into life drawing.


“The only difference between fiction and non-fiction is ‘What if’… “-Samantha Dunn

Ulin said that as a kid when he set out to write a novel the first thing he would do is number the pages of a notebook.

“Okay, I will now write a 170 page novel.” He would say to himself.

It sounds funny but he explained that in some ways it made sense because he was defining a structure, even if only for himself and even if it was bound to be broken; it was a mark to be dealt with.

I am incredibly embarrassed about how long it has taken me to finish the book I’ve been working on and I haven’t been comfortable naming the actual cause of my delay until now, which is, quite simply: fear.


Notes from Ben Loory’s lecture where I finally learned how a midpoint should operate

“Perfectionism has a marvelous way of tricking people into thinking that it’s there greatest trait,” -Elizabeth Gilbert

If you’re looking to kick start your creative juices in 2017, Gilbert has a great course on Udemy and it’s super cheap. In it she discusses perfectionism at length explaining how it is pretty much just fear in high-heeled shoes and a mink coat pretending to be really fancy.

I don’t openly love Elizabeth Gilbert but I definitely read “Big Magic” with simultaneous thoughts, which were:

Man I hate everything about this.

And: Man this exactly what I need to hear.

Though I am now beginning to realize it’s probably more like: man I hate everything about this because it’s exactly what I need to hear.

In this lecture Gilbert also quotes Rebecca Solnit in the New Yorker:

“…the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”


Portland-based poet Ed Skoog quotes Burrows and drops knowledge in his lecture about unfinishedness…

But the most compelling part of Gilberts lecture is her retelling of Ann Pachett’s analogy of “killing the butterfly.” Here’s Pachett’s original quote from her essay collection “The Story Of A Happy Marriage”:

“During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty…and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air… and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”


Ms. Brandi Neal the girl in the black hat…

The perfectionist vision can either live on forever in your head or you can actually make something.

In our workshop in Idyllwild there was only one man in our class. He was in his 60’s, a veteran who’d travelled the world and said he was there to begin writing the book that he’d had in his head for over 30 years. On the first day we all went around the room and said what was blocking us. The guy listed his wife as one of the chief reasons why he wasn’t able to start writing, she just demanded so much of his attention you see? The rest of us all made eyes at each other. (I jokingly called him out on it later because I am an asshole like that.)

A couple days later that man did an amazing thing, when you think about it: he wrote 10 pages of that book that he’d had in his head for 30 years and then he shared those pages with the rest of us. The story’s potential was off the charts, the concept had Hollywood film written all over it but ultimately it read like it was written by someone who hadn’t written much.

He was in the first group to get workshopped and then never came to class again.


Speaking of imperfection…here’s a horrible drawing of Bruce Bauman author of Broken Sleep. Sorry Bruce.


An attempted portrait of my boyfriend in which I make him look very fat.


Model from my life drawing class.

AWP (Another Writer Pretending)

So AWP was a few weeks ago and I promised my Lit Camp pal Janey Skinner that I would doodle during the panels and then share them here. So here you go.

It’s funny but AWP coincided with a couple other writing-life things. On the first day of the conference my story “Live Action Regret” was on the fiction Podcast No Extra Words. Considering the fact that I haven’t been writing much and that I didn’t have anything published at all in 2015, this was a much needed dose of encouragement. And it finally feels like it’s time to get back to work. Back to my book. Again.


Since my last post (nine months ago) I’ve spent most of my time just learning how to take better care of myself and how to be okay with not writing. I’ve been wanting to talk about this process but it feels all gross and self-helpy every time I do. So I guess I’ll just say this–in case you’ve got faulty brain chemistry like me and are looking to be not so miserable all the time–here are three things that helped: 1) Happify 2) Headspace 3) Going for walks out in the sunshine like it’s my job. (Endorphins and Vitamin D are for real!)

But back to getting back to work. In one of the guided meditations on Happify there was this women who talked that moment in meditation when you realize you’ve become distracted and it really stuck with me. She said: it’s important not to berate yourself for getting lost because it is in that very moment–where we recognize our wandering off–that instance is actually the most exciting part because that’s where we have the opportunity to truly become different.


I think my little story “Live Action Regret” is about experiencing those moments of formation where we try to become something else. Change is uncomfortable and big changes always feel so false. To me trying being positive has always felt false. The fact that I use a website called fucking Happify on a daily basis is absolutely ridiculous to me. In the past whenever I’ve tried to buy into the Elizabeth Gilbert/Oprah Magazine view on life it’s always felt like I was denying some truth about my nature that seemed to spring from my deepest sense of self. I’ve always been fascinated by the dark recesses of human psychology and existential dilemmas are pretty much my jam, so how the hell am I supposed to embrace positivity and still feel authentic?

Uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably.

Still, the bottom line is that everything is a construction, including the very idea of the self, even that convincing whim that says that the depressed version of myself is the “real me.” So why not bend the narrative in a way that’s useful? I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and that is what I was trying get at in the story: the sheer power of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’m a bad mom. I’m a hard worker. I’m an imposter. I’m doing the best I can. These things become who we are. And we can change them. Plasticity isn’t limited to brain function, the stories we tell are also malleable and there are several that we cling to without realizing it.


At AWP, “We The Animals” author Justin Torres was on a panel about coming-out narratives and I think he illustrated this dichotomy (of wanting to be positive but authentic) perfectly. He was talking about the “It Gets Better” campaign and how it’s great and all but then he sort of paused and shrugged his shoulders and was like “Does it get better? Really. Does it? Or is it better to say that was hard?”


I think the ability to sit with both feelings is essential though and that’s where the Oprah/Elizabeth Gilbert/Martha Beck acolytes drop out.


Right now in our culture of status updates this divide, between people who focus on the positive and those who live in less pleasant mind states, is more pronounced then ever. As a culture I’m sure we’ll get better at status updates eventually, but right now it’s like we’re still trying to figure out the point of it all. One of the best books I read last year was Clive Thompson’s “Smart Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For The Better,” in it he addresses this perceived lack of value behind the status update. He explains that taken on its own a single status update seems rather benign. But if you take all the updates from one individual into consideration together over a period of time they can paint a picture or at the very least give you a sense of what’s going on with a friend who you might not have thought about otherwise, he calls this sense of perception ambient awareness. He discusses how this ambient awareness can also augment our real life interactions. Like when I met up with my MFA friends at AWP we had all read the same articles and seen the highlights from each others lives so we could cut to chase when it came to conversation.

But Thompson’s whole ambient awareness thing doesn’t work if we’re only broadcasting positive shit all the time and this bias is so prevalent on social media it’s hard to imagine life without it.


I also read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” recently and have been thinking a lot about becoming. I learned two new literary terms in the process (definitions below are lifted directly from Wiki):

  1. Bildungsroman In literary criticism, a novel of formationnovel of education,[2] or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age),[3] in which character change is extremely important.[4][5]
  2.  Künstlerroman, meaning “artist’s novel” in English, is a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.[1][2] Such a work, usually a novel, tends to depict the conflicts of a sensitive youth against the values of a middle and upper class society of his or her time.

The week of AWP I got a Facebook memory notification of an update from six years earlier. In a status update I had written: “Cynthia is going to class at UCLA Extension before she get any dumber.” (Typo on purpose I hope).

I was on my way to my first creative writing class downtown when I had posted that and the memory popped up on my phone right as I was headed up to AWP. I’ve never really known what this blog is supposed to be about but I like the idea of it being a place to chart some sort of formation. Becoming a grown-up. Becoming a writer. Each tiny step forward and all the delays.

If the 26-year-old girl driving to her first writing class could have flashed forward and glimpsed at the unpublished 32-year-old on her way to AWP–let’s be real–she probably would have been disappointed. Six years? No book? WTF?

It made me think of that quote from Joan Dideon’s essay “On Keeping A Notebook”:


“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.

…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; …”

It’s hard to imagine what the 38-year old me is going to hate about the 32-year old writing this post but at least she’ll have this notebook to fuel the fire (or perhaps extinguish it).



Saying Goodbye To DTLA

So life happened and I had to drop out of a project I was really excited about. For about six months Yennie Cheung and I were working on a photography book about downtown LA as part of the 37 Series for En Ville Publishing.

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This is me enamored with Charlie Caplin’s Los Angeles Theater on Broadway

I don’t want to get into details but what happened is pretty simple: I have bipolar disorder and since January I’ve been dealing with a disruptive bout of depression. This is not a new thing, I’ve been dealing with this long enough to know that sometimes I have to let go of things no matter how badly I want to push to continue them. It’s incredibly frustrating but necessary (I haven’t been hospitalized in seven years and it’s a streak I’d like to keep).

Yennie and Julia have both been extremely understanding about the whole thing even though I pretty much fell off the face of the planet. To take my place they’ve brought in our friend Kathryn McGee. She’s perfect for the gig, enthusiastic and sharp, plus she’s an architectural historian for god’s sake! I mean she probably should of been the one working on it in the first place. I know they’re going to be awesome together and can’t wait to see what they do.

I’m sure it was the right decision because I’m finally getting better. It’s like I had all these spinning plates–this blog, WriteGirl, my story collection/submissions, Tongue & Groove, the DTLA book–then they all crashed down. At least that’s how it feels. Now I’m sifting through shards and trying to figure out which one or two things I’d like to put back together the most.

I hate it because I can handle things fine until I can’t and my self-confidence takes a big blow every time and no matter how much I try to side-step it there is always this sharp ache of disappointment in myself.


I started working on an essay about this stuff but I really don’t want this to turn into “my blog about bipolar disorder.” It took a long time to recalibrate my own perception of the disorder so that it wouldn’t define me but there are times when it’s impossible to talk about my life without acknowledging these interruptions. There is always a dual narrative in this “age of sharing” and most of the time I do what we all do: I dash off posts with convenient omissions and shape the image I want to project.

But I also feel somewhat inclined to “come out of the closet” when it comes to my mental illness because I think more people should. Why?

Because even I have a hard time believing in depression. On some level deep down I’ve always thought that it is my fault. That I’m just lazy or a shitty person. Weak. At times I wish there was some physical manifestation that I could see and point to so I could prove it to people but mostly so I could fully believe in it myself. If I myself struggle with misconceptions then I’m sure other people do. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’ll post status updates about this shit but for now I’m comfortable with this.


If there has been one silver lining to this DTLA book project it is this: Josh and I have both fallen for downtown Los Angeles. We went on five LA Conservancy tours and roamed the streets, tourists in our own backyard. We became those annoying people walking slow and staring up. For once we weren’t just rushing to get to the next thing, we actually saw the place and it was complicated and beautiful and it fascinated each of us in completely different ways. So far this year’s difficulties have slowed us down and brought us close. I can’t even express my gratitude for his patience. I’m lucky.

But since I do have a few hours of interviews and little notebooks filled with scribbles, I at least want to do a little send off about DTLA before I move on, so here goes…

Okay, pretend I have an Anthony Bourdain-type show like “The Lay-Over.” Here’s what I’d show you:

1-The opulent lobby of the Edison Building (not the bar). Green, gold and grandiose. An elaborate art deco design created for one of the city’s few rightful ego-maniac’s while he was at the height of his powers. [For another ego-maniacal DTLA design project see: Charlie Chaplin and the Los Angeles Theater on Broadway].

Edison building

2- Terra cotta. Most of the ornate buildings and theater interiors in DTLA are made with terra cotta, which is a chameleon-like material that can be shaped and dyed to resemble several other types of stone. It seems very fitting for this city of reinvention; even the stone walls are pretending to be something else.

3- Blue and green. There are two technicolor skyscrapers in DTLA: the Eastern Colombia  building and the Sun Realty building, both shine with an unreal brightness, odd and foreign next to the other buildings as though a tornado had just dropped them down from The Emerald City. [For another building that looks like it’s been transplanted from a far away land see Oviatt’s building and then look at photos from the 1925 world’s fair in Paris where he copied it’s designs].

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4- The Last Bookstore. More on this below, but I especially love the section filled with those thick, fancy art and architecture books–they are mostly used so the prices are incredibly low and most are in good enough condition to immediately snob-up your coffee-table. Plus they get “new” used stuff all the time (the store’s inventory is about 70% used books and 30% new).

5- The taco stand next to La Cita, which is across the street from Angel’s Flight. It’s great for quick, cheap, carne asada when the Central Market is too hipstery and crowded. It looks and tastes like they’d definitely except cash only (you know what I mean) but they also take cards.

6- Chiwan Choi (“The Jay Z” of poetry) I was able to interview him and was fascinated by all his insights on the nuances of recent gentrification and how developers are influencing everything from Grant Park to Mariachi Plaza. For outsiders and visitors it’s all for better but for locals like some hispanic and Korean communities it’s mostly for worse.

7- Traxx Bar at Union Station. This is the place to drink something old-timey out of a copper mug, pretend it’s 1920 and watch as commuters move through the Union Station’s marvelous golden lobby.

8-“Mike The Poet,” a local master of both recent and historic DTLA and the Arts District in particular. They guy’s been hanging around since the 90’s and giving tours for over 10 years. I think he does tours for the Architectural Society. Check-out his site here and his column for KTLA. If you do let him show you around he may or may not perform one of  his poems about the city. Fucking awesome.

9- Assemblage Art . For one-of-a-kind gifts and cool decorative stuff for the home I’d check out the shops on the mezzanine at The Last Bookstore, especially the two that are run by David Lovejoy and Jena Priebe. They are the artists behind the iconic labyrinth and arch of books and the rest of the installation art for the Last Book Store. The mezzanine is home to the Spring Arts Collective so the walls are always filled with cool stuff to look at. and the shops themselves look more like works of art then places of commerce. If do you go in there just don’t call their artwork steam punk, it’s not.

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This sculpture in front of MOCA is not by Lovejoy or Priebe but you get the idea…they make stuff into other stuff…wa-la!

10-John Fante Square and Bunker Hiil. The best way to discover historical downtown is to read “Ask The Dust” and if you really want the story of Fante’s downtown check out Stephen Cooper’s book “Full Of Life.” For the DTLA book I tried to pack the essence of this 400 page biography into a 500-character article, like most things I worked on for the book before letting go, it was a pleasurable challenge (and it’s one of the few things I finished that still might make it to print).

We’ll just have to wait and see…

The habitual position of being okay…and other quotes

I haven’t blogged in months because life has been busy. I started working on a travel/coffee table/photography book about DTLA with Yennie Cheung for En Ville Publishing. I have the 2nd Tongue & Groove OC show coming up. I started mentoring through WriteGirl. I spent December in Palm Desert and Virginia where I scrambled to make my annual reading goal, like most things in life I limped over the finish line.

But busy is good. This kind of busy is good.

So I wrote this article for Lit Central about my favorite author YouTube videos. For the article I also transcribed a few quotes from the videos. They were supposed to go with the article but they got lost in the shuffle so I’m going to post them here.

In between the quotes are doodles from lectures I recently attended at UCR’s residency Palm Desert. Here you go:

“…we know for a fact, totally verifiable, that in x number of years we’ll all be rotting corpses…we know it! Why are we so happy?…What’s weird is the habitual position of being okay with that…” – George Saunders (on finding wonderment in the mundane)


This is what the water jugs look like at the Rancho Las Palmas resort and spa in Palm Springs.

“As a general writing principal your job is to do something and then notice it and then adjust accordingly. And then notice the thing that you’ve done and adjust accordingly and then kind of rinse, lather, repeat a million times and then weirdly, in time, the story will adjust itself morally to be more fair.” –George Saunders (on balancing sympathy between characters in a story)


This friendly reminder is courtesy of Wendy Ortiz who gave a lecture on indy publishing. Her first book Excavation was released this year.

 “There was a feeling of pushing it and forcing it, which to me is a big clue that’s it’s not working, and the better space is to be in is to feel like it’s messy but I’m interested.” -Amy Bender (on how she realized a novel wasn’t working)


This is something Emily Rapp noted in her lecture on Leslie Jamison’s structurally amazing essay collection The Empathy Exams

 “I’m very much interested in how we use local phenomena to access larger things…I always use the same example: Melville ain’t just talking about whalers…”-Junot Diaz (on how his characters discussing their Dominican-ness is a shorthand for larger issues)


I had Josh pose like this for a WriteGirl campaign on Giving Tuesday (the day after Cyber Monday) #unselfie

 “I think people experience time differently. I tried to make a case in this book that women experience it differently then men…we have a different biology and it moves in a different way and that’s the bottom line…it doesn’t mean that things need to be set-up in an inferior way for women but that biological time piece within us is real and it is different then it is for men…The existence of a thing called menopause, which is like an enormous lighted sign saying things are ending, never happens to men, which I think is a great advantage for women and a disaster for men because they don’t notice and then they’re 65 and their girl is 22 and it’s all a shock to them. It’s good to have some warning.” -Zadie Smith (on replicating how we experience time within a novel)


Sage advice from Rob Edwards at his lecture on writing for animation at UCR’s Palm Springs residency

And just for fun here are some of my favorite George Carlin quotes (totally unrelated):

“The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, ‘You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

“Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do “practice”?”

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day. ”

“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”

“If four out of five people SUFFER from diarrhea…does that mean that one enjoys it?”

Writing Process Blog Tour 2014

Last month I went to my first Vermin on the Mount reading in San Diego. It was excellent. Now that I’m trying to curate a reading series I’m really interested in how each creator/host puts their own spin on it and this one definitely had its own vibe, like how Dirty Laundry Lit has its own distinct vibe. I learned a new phrase: Mexi-goth (courtesy of Lizz Huerta). Now I want to live San Diego.

My friend Maggie met Vermin creator Jim Ruland that night  (author of “Forest of Fortune”) and he tagged her in this blog tour. Then she tagged me. Here are my answers. Scroll to the bottom to see who I tagged!

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on a linked short story collection called “Torches In The Ashtray.” The stories revolve around characters who have all had their early adulthood disrupted in some way. Unplanned parenthood, mental disorders, sobriety, etc. It’s not as heavy as it sounds–I’m still learning how to talk about my book, it still feels awkward.

Most of my characters are female and they’re all really raw. It’s a wild group of girls to follow around, lots of self-sabotage and attempts to pick each other up after.

2) How does your work differ from the other works in the same area/genre?

My book is probably most similar to Victoria Patterson’s collection “Drift” and Lisa Glatt’s novel-in-stories ”A Girl Becomes A Comma Like That.” There’s a lot of thematic overlap but while Glatt’s book takes place in Long Beach and Patterson’s takes place in coastal Orange County, my characters are from working-class neighborhoods in what I like to think of as the forgotten cities of OC: the cities by the cities-by-the-sea… if you will. The collection is also punctuated by a series of flash fiction pieces that are more experimental, most of which are in second person, though they are probably the first thing an editor will make me cut.

[Other more recent books in the same realm are: “Normal People Don’t Live Like This” by Dylan Landis & “Blueprints For Building Better Girls” by Elissa Schappell and “I Want to Show You More” by Jaime Quatro.  These are my heroes.]


My boyfriend snapped a picture of me stomping to the library the other day. Super grateful to live where I do.

The boyfriend snapped a picture of me stomping to the library. Screw the beach! It’s all about Huntington Beach Central Park & Library.

3) Why do you write about what you do?

I pretty much write for the same reason I read. When I pick up a book, I’m looking to have an emotional experience with a character. I write because I like the idea of being on the other side of that exchange. So I tend to write about things that I’ve seen friends and family grapple with and things that I’ve struggled with in one way or another. It’s the only way I know how to tap into that emotional landscape in a way that doesn’t feel contrived.

4) How does your writing process work?

Um, so I have no life. No kids. So I have a lot of rituals when it comes to my writing routine. First, I walk to the library. It’s like a 20-minute walk and it gives me a reason to get dressed and leave the house, which is crucial. I write better when I have pants and shoes on. On the walk, I listen to music and don’t look at my phone and focus on fiction.

When I get to the library, I always allow myself about ten minutes to browse the new release shelves. It’s silly but I do this every time to remind myself that this is what it’s all about. This is why I’m at the library: because I love books and want to write one. That takes pressure off in a weird way and it also lets me cool down from the walk and like literally stop sweating. Yeah, It’s gross.

I work for a few hours and then walk home–again sort of meditating on stories and characters. Then when I get home, I read my work aloud over and over like a crazy person.

As far as rewrites, I take long breaks in between stories. I send work to friends and then sit on their notes for a while and think about their suggestions on my walks. Then, going into a rewrite, I go back over the notes in a systematic way and put together a loose list objectives/things to address. I think the long breaks allow me to be ruthless in a way that is necessary for the editing process to work but I do hope I get faster at writing and rewriting.

Still pretty new at all this.

Okay I would like to tag…

Cheryl Klein is the author of “The Commuters” and “Lilac Mines.” Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Normal School, Mutha Magazine, Literature for Life and The Whistling Fire. She enjoys the internet and carbs.

Douglas Wood hates writing bios. So I didn’t ask him for one. This month he’s reading at the first ever Tongue & Groove Orange County (for which I made him write a bio). 

Sarah Polley & The Ghost Ship

I’ve been a little obsessed with both of writer/director Sara Polley’s most recent films. The latest is “Stories We Tell” (2013), which deserves it’s own blog post, but the one I’ve been studying is “Take This Waltz” (2012). It’s about a young married women (Michelle Williams) who decides to leave her husband (Seth Rogen) and the comfort of their so-so relationship to take a chance with the more arty/mysterious guy she’s drawn to (Luke Kirby). It’s on Netflix.

imagesNeedless to say my live-in boyfriend was a little concerned about me watching this somewhat glorified tale of adultery over and over again. Actually, scratch that, technically there is no adultery–the character leaves her husband before anything physical happens—it’s just that her flirtation and infatuation with the other guy is so intense it feels like cheating.

My boyfriend’s got a good point. This film could easily be interpreted as a form of wish fulfillment for someone who is unhappy in their relationship, which I am not. I am however rewriting a story called “Part Of A We” that explores some of the same issues.

Like the story I’m trying to write the movie is teeming with sexual tension. In the movie the climax is an uninterrupted four-minute sequence where we see what becomes of the lusty couple, complete with nudity and the Leonard Cohen song whirling in the background, while the camera spins around the couple like a marry-go-round through a montage of their new life together.

If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to spoil it don’t watch this… 

WaltzI use the phrase “wish fulfillment” because in the real world I do not think the majority of people in a so-so relationship would leave. Unless something is really wrong at some point it just seems easier to stay. Contentment beats loneliness.

The character in this film seems rather content but she wants more. We all want more and we will always want more. We will always long for something, which makes it feel as though we’re always settling for something.

In an interview about the movie Polley says that in order to make a film she has to be deeply interested in the question it asks. In this case the question is: what happens to lust when it comes to long-term relationships?

Everyone believes in love and its capacity to shift and morph into something wonderfully intimate and complex with time. But what about lust and sexuality? What are reasonable expectations in that realm? These questions are difficult to ask directly because they make people uncomfortable, which makes them perfect for fiction.

For however grand and romantic and satisfying the climax of the movie initially is, the final wrap-up is just as interesting and much more complicated. After all the great sex and abundance of lust between the two we eventually we cut to the new couple in an unexceptional moment. Michelle Williams is on the toilet and the new guy is brushing his teeth and you can feel the monotony between them. The relationship has become ordinary.

This month there was a fascinating article in Time about how millennials were surveyed to be open to “Beta Marriage” contracts, which is basically a two-year trial period in which either party may terminate the contract.

It seems reasonable right? Test the relationship and minimize risk.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from “Take This Waltz” it’s essence is conveniently summed up in a fabulous line delivered by Sarah Silverman’s drunken character:

“Life has a gap it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”

There are some moments in life where you have to pick a side. Who to marry. Whether to marry. Whether to have kids. You can try to ensure your decision with trial periods and pros and cons but ultimately you have to come terms with the decision, whatever it may be.

My favorite quote on the matter is from Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Surgar column on The Rumpus:

“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

It is no accident that the female protagonist in this story has a fear of “being in between things,” like connecting flights. She’s not afraid of missing a flight she’s afraid of wondering if she’ll miss it.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what I’ve missed and what I will miss. In the end you eventually just have to act. And when it comes to the permanent decisions you have to find solace.


In the same interview above, Polley explains how we like to believe that if we could just make this one change or do this one thing then everything else in our lives would magically fall into place. In the film we see this play out. In the very last scene the protagonist returns to the carnival ride where she and the mysterious/artsy guy had their first outing together, when longing was at an all-time high. The first time we see the ride is it a magical place but in the end she is there all by herself. When the music starts and the colorful lights begin to flash and the ride begins to move she looks lonely and disappointed but eventually she smiles. She closes her eyes and enjoys the dizzying circular movements. She’s okay.