Trapped Downtown…not “Downton” which would be even worse, to be trapped in that PBS world of high tea and smug smugness….no, this is a section about being a citizen of DTLA– Downtown Los Angeles. A recent cover of LA Magazine reads “Why We Love Downtown: 75 Reasons…” or something like that…you can check out the lists and laudatory commercials and boosterism yourself. I read that cover and the first thought that popped into my head is “YOU love downtown because YOU don’t actually live here.” I appreciate the juxtapositions of downtown, I notice the dissonance…that being said….there’s a lot to dislike about downtown Los Angeles. So I am actively looking for things to appreciate. First on my list is not the proximity to culture, by which I mean that you can walk to Disney Hall or Santee Alley. It’s the Quixotic Palpable dream of so many of the organizers who live here, those who toil against the fact that it’s impossible to shine up downtown because it would take a lot of political power to address the drugs, homelessness, and the ongoing epitomization of class inequality in Los Angeles. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” as the poet said.
Knausgaard and Donald Antrim: ADVICE for YOUNG WRITERS
A report from the Hammer Reading Series
Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Do you have any advice for young writers?
This is a question that gets asked frequently at readings and it is a kind of Generosity Test. Some writers just evade it….Donald Antrim and K. Knausgaard didn’t evade it.
Knausgaard –which I think means “Heart-Throb” in Norwegian, judging from the numbers of swooning women around me—even two well-known writers, sitting in front of me, were both swooning, swooning. It was slightly distracting. But he’s sort of sublime, this Knausgaard. “When I couldn’t write,” he said, “and my normal thing is NOT being able to write….So you write…But you must be willing to fail every day.”
Donald Antrim said something like: “I write to escape time and to be calm while I’m doing it.” He said that young writers should “get ready for anxiety. To avoid anxiety is to avoid the experience. It’s going to be terror.”
Jennifer Egan received the Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and all of the other Prizes for her remarkable novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. When she accepted the L.A. Times Book Award (pictured: David Ulin, Jennifer Egan, Brighde Mullins), she spoke about the fact that she’d write even if no one paid any attention, because she loved writing. She reminded me of my poetry teacher saying over and over “the only thing that really matters is your relationship to your work.” Or, as John Ashbery puts it—“He danced on the bridge for the feeling of dancing on a bridge.” Adrienne Rich has written that “you must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” Our lives do depend on our ability to to make things, and to make things is an act that is audacious, difficult and necessary.
In his book “A Bright and Guilty Place” Richard Rayner writes that “cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you….” This phrase came to mind when I went to hear Patti Smith speak and sing at USC. I associate her with certain places and times— New York City, the Chelsea Hotel, the punk scene….but then, too, with Detroit, where she raised her children.
Josh Kun asked Patti Smith what place Los Angeles occupied in her imagination. She said that she first saw it through the eyes of her mother, who loved Hollywood. She also mentioned the influence of hard-boiled Los Angeles writers—from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler onward. She mentioned that she loves the nicotine-gum chewing detective from “The Killing” so much that Sarah Linden is the screensaver on her computer. When I told my friend Dawn Prestich, who is an Executive Producer on “The Killing,” she was thrilled—she texted me that “Patti Smith is now our screen-saver!”
Los Angeles figures as a place in the imagination through a blend and a whirr of associations. Geography, immigration, inheritance and new technologies were the perfect mulch-bed for Hollywood. There is also Noir—that distinctly Los Angeles sub-genre. Rayner describes noir as “on the one hand, a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom.” He goes on to say that it is also a “counter-tradition, the dark lens through which history came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times…”
Patti Smith went on to talk about her love of the materiality of books: “the feel, the tissue, the paper, the frontispice”—I am reminded of a short essay that she wrote for the New York about shop-lifting a book from a New Jersey supermarket.
She also talked about what Josh Kun called her references, but what I understood to mean her influences: “I mix freely,” she said. “I take what I like from different worlds and try to make my own world. I look to work that makes me want to work—work that agitates me.”
She said that as an artist she feels “sort of dogged…I can’t relax. I always want to photograph– I always want to translate–” I always travel with a small notebook, and as she spoke I was trying to keep up with her, trying to write down the sense and gist of her phrases. We weren’t allowed to record or photograph that night, so this is written from those notes and those impressions—of course I did see many people in the audience covertly taking photos or recording on their little easily hidden devices.
Patti Smith spoke about loss and love—and how emotions and experiences get transformed into art. She spoke of losing her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and her mother and her dog—“they’re all gone. I’ve lost them all. But as I lost people I thought I can still talk to them. Because they’re still here—a host of happy, scolding spirits.”
As she played “Because the Night” she invited the audience to join in. She said that she’d always hated it when she was at a concert and the singer cajoled the audience. “Now I’m doing it,” she said. She also said how she still felt the love and tenderness and lust she’d felt for her husband when she sang “Because the Night.”
After she sang, after she spoke, after the event ended I was walking my dog Violet across campus. We crossed paths with Patti Smith. When I introduced Violet to Patti Smith, she kissed Violet on the head and said “Beautiful name.” Yes. Then she asked me “Do you want a pick?” YES, I did, and she handed me a guitar pick. Here it is, and here is Violet:
“I don’t like meeting my heroes,” MG Lord said to me when I told her this story. I didn’t really meet her, I said, Violet met her. I just happened to be there when it happened.
The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a miracle of sorts—of the many ways to read and write in America in 2011. In the midst of celebrity authors (Jillian Michaels, Rainn Wilson, Ted Danson, etcetera) and the local grass-roots contingent and hardcore, high-end literati, I hosted a panel called Teaching Kids Writing. Due to the increased marginalization of the arts in the national curriculum, it has fallen to nonprofits and arts organizations to create outreach programs that preserve and nurture the arts as well as create unique experiences that only arts education can provide.
Melinda MacInnis from the University of Southern California’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative talked about the genesis of her program, which began after the 1992 L.A. Riots: “Years ago, when L.A. was literally on fire, USC had a choice—to build walls around the campus, or to reach out into the community. USC reached out.”
Melinda brought two students (pictured) to read from their work. Joslynn Cerrato, an 11th grader from Foshay Learning Center, read a short essay called “I Am American” and Vanessa Lopez, an 11th grader from Manual Arts Senior High School, read a poem called “Feeling Blue.”
Michelle Meyering, from the writers’ advocacy organization PEN Center USA, introduced her program, which brings writers into schools. Two of our Master of Professional Writing students, Amie Longmire and Krishna Narayamurti, brought in three students from West Adams Preparatory High School. Teresa Meza read a memoir, “I Was Wrong”; Domonic Flowers’ poem, “Save Me a Spot in College,” was a college application essay written in rhyme; and Natalia Zepeda’s short story, “Snow Woman/Ice Queen,” was riveting—all in all these young writers brought down the house.
Krishna talked about the three goals he and Amie presented—to be better writers, to be published, and to be brave. The last injunction, which was about BRAVERY, was an interesting one because we do talk about the risks involved with writing our truths, our stories.
Because writing is itself, as Gandhi reminds us, “an experiment with the truth,” the very act of writing can be an act of discovery.
M.G. Lord’s Science Writing class has been cooking on all (bunsen) burners. She started off the semester with a visit by screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) ,followed up with tv writer and inorganic chemist Bill Odenkirk (Futurama, The Simpsons), and will end the semester with TV writer and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (House).
Last week novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player) was on hand to talk about his screenplay for Deep Impact, a disaster film about rogue asteroids. M.G. showed a clip from the film that included Morgan Freeman delivering the bad news to TV crews, and she confessed that she’d re-watched the film earlier and had spent the afternoon weeping…. How did a disaster film manage to unhinge M.G.? It’s the emotional content of the film–and the fact that it depicts the end of life as we know it. (Gerard Manley Hopkins: “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for….”)
M.G. asked Michael if it was depressing writing about the end of the world. “Oh, no, it’s fun destroying the world…on paper.” Dr. David C. Pieri from the Earth Surface Science Group at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at CalTech was also on hand, and the three talked about research, verisimilitude, science as inspiration, story as metaphor and meaning as inevitable. A video podcast of the event will be available shortly. Here are some highlights:
- Planetary geologist Dave Pieri had one quibble with the Science Stuff in Deep Impact–the depiction of the cresting tidal wave vs. the reality of a wave of that magnitude which would have a flatter and more destructive shape. He asked Michael Tolkin about the problem of verisimilitude.
- Tolkin said, “Everything serves the story. Nothing stands in the way. The research is there to give you ideas.” That being said–Tolkin praised the benefit of research for its own sake as well. He spoke of the pleasure of knowing things, the intellectual rewards, the fact that everything that he writes, not only the science stuff, entails research. Part of his research for Deep was going to the launch of the Space Shuttle. “I’ve seen Dylan, Hendrix…. A night launch of the Shuttle is all of rock and roll compressed.” He also made pilgrimages to the Chalk Caves and Kitt Peak to research the film. He interviewed geologists, NASA scientists, he did asteroid research. “You start with research to get the facts right and then you lie,” he said, giving MPW students a sort of permission slip. (Robert Frost: “Fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows….”)
- M.G. asked Tolkin how he chooses a form since he writes both novels and screenplays. His advice to our students? “If you have a REALLY good idea, write it as a novel first. Writing a novel is–internally–a much richer experience than writing a screenplay.” It’s a much richer reading experience too. He went on to praise The Privileges, Jonathan Dee’s novel about a certain strata of society. Tolkin wrote his meta-Hollywood film The Player as a novel first–and then adapted it. This reminded me of Chekhov’s method (by default?) of writing short stories that are character sketches and tone poems for all of his plays.
- Tolkin described all disaster films as metaphors that illustrate our fears of loss of control. “The gift is being given a good metaphor. The work is structuring the story.” And how does he do that? “You work backwards from what would be the most dramatic.”
How does M.G. enlist such a line-up of amazing writers, thinkers, scientists? It’s no accident. Her memoir, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, is what started her ongoing conversation with Scientists and Science Writing. The book’s a memoir because her father was an engineer at JPL, where she also brought her students.
M.G.’s also a cultural historian. She’s written about Barbie (Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll), and next up is her book The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.
M.G.’s class has shown all of us that we need to use everything–science, etc!–to really understand the world through our writing. Dave Pieri described most people as being “fugitives from science.” Not at MPW!
N.B.: I just remembered that Davi Pieri, our geologist, had said that the role of films such as Deep Impact is that they can serve as warnings. They help to create the bigger picture of the real dangers that face all of us, and they should convince our governments to take heed…. And so these disaster films, and especially a film such as Deep Impact, also serve as cautionary tales, the kinds of fairy tales that mothers told their children to wake them up, to make them pay attention. (Anton Artaud: “We are not safe, the sky can still fall on our heads and it is the purpose of the theatre to remind us that this is so….”)
Timely, timely, timely: “Earth Needs Asteroid Shield, UN Told.”
And for more about M.G. Lord, read the article “From Barbies to Rockets.”
When I lived in Cambridge, Mass., I had the good fortune to live around the corner from Lewis Hyde and his wife, writer Patsy Vigderman. Lew was recently in Los Angeles to talk about his new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, and television legend Norman Lear held a book party in his honor–this is a snapshot of Lew in front of a happy Rothko that hangs on a side-wall in Norman Lear’s very large home.
Common as Air is Hyde’s third book. His first two (The Gift and Trickster Makes This World) are cult classics among artists. Hyde writes about ancient ideas and inheritances with startling freshness. There are anecdotes and shards of autobiography in his writings–his persona is of a scholar in a thicket of tangible ideas. He’s at home in both secular and sacred realms and brings the past into the present with alacrity. His arguments take the form of stories.
In his introduction to Hyde, as moguls settled into chairs and ingenues draped themselves on the stairs, Norman Lear spoke about our culture being “gobbled up.” He was hosting this book party because “of the importance of Hyde’s ideas….”
“Culture is always arising, and those who participate in its ongoing creation will rightly want to question any cultural expression that comes to them wrapped in a right to exclude,” Hyde writes in the first chapter of Common as Air…which is also Book of Questions.
It took Hyde six years to write this 300-page book. He gave Lear’s guests a nutshell version in his 20-minute talk, tracing ideas of copyright, notions of creativity, and examples of enabling and disabling protocols of ownership. Hyde’s an autodidact with a lyric poet’s style and sensibility. He puts pressure on words, squeezing meaning from etymologies, shifting social contexts, and sensitivities. His vocabulary re-animates old words and presses them into service in a multiplicity of meanings. Early on he states, “I want ‘common’ to be available as a verb….”
He looked a bit of the Trickster at Norman Lear’s house–a disruptive presence among Hollywood types. He spoke of ideas as belonging to all of us, and he referenced the founding fathers’ notions of property-rights as material goods. He quoted Jefferson: “Ideas cannot in nature be the subject of property,” Jefferson wrote. (JEFFERSON! I might add, slave-owning Jefferson!)
The founding father that Hyde gravitates toward is Benjamin Franklin. In a chapter entitled “Benjamin Franklin: Founding Pirate,” he describes Franklin’s attitude toward his own contributions and inventions as not being about self-promotion but for “the common Benefit.” Franklin shared ideas freely, and he absorbed ideas quickly. He did not hoard what he knew, and he did not personalize it either. “He understood, first of all, that scientific claims do not depend on particular scientists; the more personal the origin of the claim, in fact, the more likely its errors.”
Lewis Hyde’s arguments are critiques of the commodification and distribution of art as product. Questions of Intellectual Property become increasingly fractious as experiences of art become virtual, as we take the body (video games) and the object (the book) out of the experience (somatic?) of art. Lew wanted some resistance, and Los Angeles should have been one place to receive it–but he received only sanguine admiration for the sacrifice he’s gone to in creating this argument. At Norman Lear’s pad he was talking to artists, actors, and entertainment industry visionaries. Gore Vidal was there as well, and at the end of the evening Lear asked Mr. Vidal to speak. Gore Vidal spoke of Benjamin Franklin, bringing us back again to that founding pirate. Everything seemed possible.
This idea that the self, that the ego, that the personality needs be distilled out of the work is longstanding. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot states: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”