New York State of Mind

July 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last Sunday, at the bookstore, I saw the name ‘Emily Gould’ in red letters on the spine of a book in the memoir section. I don’t forget the names of editors I worked with briefly as a literary agent. Back then Emily was an editor at Hyperion. She has since worked at Gawker and is now on her own doing freelance. Her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, is a snapshot account of her life from college through young adulthood in New York City.

“I felt the vacuum of the empty suburbs surrounding me like a black hole in which my body was suspended, as though I were the only warm alive thing left in the world (Gould, 27).”

After her childhood in the burbs, Emily only lasted one year at Kenyon, a university in the Midwest full of loser frat boys, where women end up objectified or abused. It’s obvious that she does not fit – the same way that I did not fit at small, conservative George Fox University. While all of my roommates were out with their fiancés, I was sitting alone in my bunk bed with a stray cat, eating Chinese take-out and watching old Fellini films. I dreaded the moment when they would return, “What is this crap you’re watching? It doesn’t make any sense!”

Once in the city, Emily pays her way through writing classes with a series of server jobs where she suffers from anxiety. She feels exhausted from performing, leaves her feminism at the door, and puts up with being treated like a dimwit.

My first job in New York was in Soho at an Italian restaurant. The manager wanted me to stand outside to try and draw people in. I was not even a host, and I was not getting paid. Around 9pm, a band started to play, and the manager asked me to sit with some rich businessmen. I have to admit, though he was turning me into some kind of unpaid escort, I enjoyed the conversation, since one man owned the art gallery across the street, and bragged about how he had worked with Andy Warhol.

The manager said I would be serving at another location that was just opening up in the Lower East Side, where my commute would take twice as long. On my first day there, the owner only came upstairs to yell at us then disappeared into the basement for hours.

The other two servers were actors and called me “babe,” in a condescending tone that I found irritating. There were no sections, and they viciously fought for tables. Being the newbie, I had one lone table, and ended up bussing the other 49, spinning in confusion.

When it was time to go, I went downstairs to find the boss. Down a long hallway, he was sitting in a grimy office smoking a joint and counting piles and piles of money. There were at least twenty stacks over six inches high. I’d been in New York for one week, and already I was working for the mafia. I’ve since learned that in Jersey and New York, restaurants are backed by mafia money, while in Seattle they are backed by drug dealers – same thing, different titles.

I walked back to the original location and told the manager that I wanted to work in Soho, but he didn’t have a position for me. It was a good thing. I was the only person there who wasn’t right off the boat, and all the money was under the table with no salary. I was beginning to think that the entire city was outside of the law.

A year later I ran into the manager again at a party thrown by a flamboyant Italian man. At all of his parties, the host hired a model to walk next to him carrying a sign that read, “Stefano Is Here” with an arrow pointing down. The manager was working as the DJ that night, and I had been hired as a dancer with a percussion band that I performed with. We were at a swank restaurant uptown, called Zanzibar, and the party had a tribal theme.

The ex-manager/DJ was completely shocked to see me. I was no longer shell-shocked and outside of my element. In fact, I was getting paid to be the life of the party. Things moved fast in New York, so fast, I can’t believe it all happened.

After a series of serving jobs, Emily Gould found herself working as the Editorial Assistant to a Senior Editor at a publishing house.

“I was realizing that the production of book-shaped products had very little to do with “books,” the holy relics that my college education had been devoted to venerating (Gould, 99).”

Once at the literary agency, I imagined myself taking on literary clients and life-changing books, but I couldn’t halt the constant stream of fluff being thrown at me by my boss or the pressure to find a sale that could meet current trends. I didn’t feel strong enough, or maybe nothing seemed good enough, and everyday was a pressure cooker to make that deal happen.

Being let go was a tremendous relief. For all that time I’d never been able to read my own books, or write my own words. So every morning for the next six months, I was up at 6am to write for an hour outside the coffee shop, with people rushing past me to work. After writing ten pages, I would begrudgingly join them, and go to my shitty job in the city, numbering every single piece of crap artwork that came out of Peter Max’s factory. Like that first restaurant I worked at, only recent immigrants lasted in his exploitation-fest. He was donating millions to charity, and I couldn’t afford to live. But as long as I got that writing in every morning, it seemed okay.

Emily Gould still lives in Brooklyn, and I have to admit, I feel a sense of envy that I am not still in New York too. There is always the sense that I am missing out on something – connections, parties, shows. You can find all that in Seattle too, the problem is that I really haven’t yet.

I also have a theory – that when you leave New York you get slightly weak and introverted because the pressure is finally off. I hadn’t realized how much energy it took. I’ve watched as friend after friend left the city and completely went into reclusive mode. One friend even took to the mountains, and never lasts for more than 24 hours when she comes to visit me. In New York she was a tough, angsty, goth rocker chick in platform boots. Now she is a peaceful hippy, who prefers to live in a yurt, pee in an outhouse, and grow vegetables.

Five years since my move back, I’m teaching myself how to refind my New York energy. I’m remembering that in New York, amidst all the crazy, I learned how to live, how to survive, and how to love exponentially. Not the fake romantic love of adolescence, but real love for all of my friends and my community.

Instead of complaining about how I lost that when I left, I’m now remembering how to be what you wish others would become. And surprisingly, I’m finding what I’ve been looking for. Friendships are flowing naturally, the way they should be. I sense I’m growing closer to the pulsing beat of energy. Life takes a turn, once again.

Write To Live

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am feeling vulnerable.  The pitch for my memoir is about to be sent out to editors, and I have spent the last ten years pouring everything I have into this book.  It has evolved and grown with time, and thanks to rejections of past versions, it has become more refined, more complete, more honest.

Though I try my best to not take rejections personally (having worked in publishing has helped me a lot with this), it is still always a hard blow to the ego, with days spent feeling like a failure.  I know my book has enormous potential, now I just need people in the publishing industry to see that too.

In vulnerable writer moments, the best author to turn to is Erica Jong.  “Only if you have no other choice should you be a writer (Jong, 6).”

I have just finished reading her book, Seducing the Demon – Writing For My Life.  The stories from her life are all hilarious, and told in nonlinear fashion.  Most memorable would be how she broke up Martha Stewart’s marriage when it was already falling apart (picture Stewart’s husband as an emasculated chore boy).

Humorous stories aside, it seemed that Jong was speaking directly to me and everything that I am dealing with right now – death and the struggle of trying to capture life in words.

“Life is a dream, but the dream disintegrates unless you write it down (my father) reminds me (Jong, 253).”

I first began writing because I wanted to end my life.  It was a common theme throughout my adolescence, but escalated when I was twenty-one.  I always knew that I was not the person my family wanted me to be.  Within my core, I was not a Christian, but I was told by everyone around me that if I did not follow I would lose their acceptance.  I would be fallen, lost, going to hell.  I did everything to make God real to me.  But instead, I began to see that everything I’d been told was false.

In the process of all this, I was prone to deep depression and would fall into trance-like states where I left my body and began to ponder how I could destroy it.  Looking back, it was symbolic, since the Christianity I was raised with denies the body.

Eventually, when that mode became an everyday issue, I had to enter therapy.  The therapist didn’t sort my issues since I was still stuck within my Christian university and didn’t feel free to speak what I was really feeling.  What really changed my life was writing.

“Writing is tough, but it’s a lot less tough than depression.  Which basically leads to suicide.  Unless you make a joke (Jong, 232).”

At first the writing was not good.  It was melodramatic, sickeningly romantic, full of unnecessary flourishes and old-fashioned language.  Through hundreds of poems, I attempted to express what I was feeling.

I experienced a real breakthrough while reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.  Here was a man who bravely and beautifully wrote about gay sex in the 1950’s.  If he could do that then, than I could celebrate sensuality in my poetry, turn it in, and risk getting marked down or reprimanded.  Surprisingly, my teacher raved over the poem I wrote.

We normally looked at each other’s work anonymously.  But at the end of analyzing my poem the professor said, “And the girl who wrote this…” (Everyone looked around since there was only one other girl in the class) “Ope!  Sorry Lauren!”

The room full of boys twittered in embarrassment.  But then my professor continued, “This is the first poem I’ve seen all semester that is ready to be published.”  I sat there red in the cheeks, but brimming with pride that this professor who was such a tough nut to crack, who was known for yelling at people for using the word “deep” because it didn’t express anything, was now telling me I had potential.

“For the poet, the lover becomes the world.  The exploration of love becomes an exploration of life (Jong, 66).”

Before poetry, I painted portraits, then realized I had more to tell.  Poetry was vague enough to feel safe writing what I had to say.  But then I wanted to tell the whole truth and share the whole picture.

To write I have sacrificed money, jobs, relationships, and security.  But I have no choice, and wouldn’t be happy any other way.  My book sits there like the holy grail, full of promises that might not be met.  When I first tried to publish it, I was cocky, with no doubt that the first agent would snap it up and put it on auction, scoring a great book deal which would lead to it becoming a bestseller with a movie deal in the works.  I literally did not doubt this one iota.

In it’s earliest version (not nearly as fleshed out as it is now) it was rejected by over a hundred agents and editors.  Back then it was just a novel about a girl who parties too much.  Now it’s a memoir about a girl trying to forget an oppressive upbringing through an underground subculture that turns dark quickly.

“People who most crave ecstasy are probably least capable of moderation (Jong, 134).”

The people I write about in my book will be both horrified and gratified to see themselves frozen in time.  But the only reaction that really concerns me is that of my parents.  I hope they can forgive the fact that I need to lay them bare to understand my life.  Like many parents, it’s painful for them to allow their child to be their own person.  They will never fully accept who I am because it doesn’t fit into their worldview.  I am the reality that they find hard to face.

“If you want to be a nice person, don’t write.  There’s no way to do it without grinding up your loved ones and making them into raw hamburger (Jong, 239).”

Now when I actually see the living people who embody the other characters in the book, I hardly know how to look at them, without only seeing our past.  To me, they have become caricatures of themselves, mythology.

“Time and again I have found that once I have frozen a person in a book I can hardly remember what the real person was like (Jong, 268).”

At a memorial, I saw them all two days ago.  I realized, that they feel the same way about me.  They are completely unable to understand who I am now, unable to listen, and can only speak in jokes or insensitive diatribes.  They have frozen me in time.  I didn’t want to be there, but in coming together over the death of our beautiful friend, I came to the ending of my story.

“You are not doing it all alone.  You are standing on the shoulders of the dead.  You are writing love letters to the grave.  The word is a link in a human chain (Jong, 61).”

I’m in those last years where you can be considered young.  But I don’t feel young at all.  I feel like time is too short and I have too many stories to share to fit into that shortness of life.  Ideas keep popping into my head.  I want to write them all, to share this thing I cannot stop.  To live, I must write.

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