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.

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Yep.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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

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

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Model from my life drawing class.

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.

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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.

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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].

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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…