Confronting the Sphynx

As I am about to enter this screenplay-writing competition, and, as I’m expecting to lose, it’s got me thinking a lot about the process of trying to get accepted for my writing. My screenplay will likely get passed over because it doesn’t follow the five-act structure, and there’s even more reasons that I don’t know about because there are loads of books on how to write a screenplay, none of which I’ve read. With my novels, I know that there are several technical reasons my queries are getting rejected, despite the fact that, when people read them, they really like them, as is evidenced in my modest number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews (except for that one guy on Goodreads who gave me a mysterious 1-star, as well as that 1-star guy on Amazon who really hated what I wrote).

If there are people so strictly enforcing quality control for the written word, then why is there so much garbage out there? I don’t mean like Two and a Half Men, which was a terrible show but popular enough to last for around ten seasons. I mean the cancelled-after-half-of-a-season kind of shows. The ones that are not well-plotted and lack any memorable or likeable characters and doesn’t connect with an audience, but they still impressed someone enough to hire directors, producers, actors, special effects, and various crews. I’m talking about the dreary, repetitive, badly written books that have made it through an agent, a publisher, and an editor. The first ten pages are what sells your books, so these bad writers must have amazing first ten pages because the rest is just horrible. They’re awful works of entertainment, but they knew the right code words to make it past the gatekeepers. I feel like, if I could figure out how to do the steps precisely, I might have a chance. That means I have to learn the steps intimately, and I don’t really have the patience for that. That’s not why I write.

What does that mean for me? I can’t afford to buy slick covers anymore, so no more self-publishing. Even though she ghosted me, the agent I talked to in April made me think I had at least one book worthy of sending out, and I might get to that later this year. But mostly, I’m going to write. When a contest like this comes up, I’m going to enter, not because I’m expecting to win, but because the challenge of it will appeal to me. Who knows, maybe I’ll do the right dance move and get in the door someday. If I don’t, I’ll keep writing because it gives me joy in a difficult world.

Fat Load of Good

You can’t tell because I don’t put pictures of myself online, I put on an incredible amount of weight since the divorce. It all came down to diet, I just ate garbage, and a lot of it, three meals a day. I was actually pretty active, taking a 2.5-mile-or-more walk six days a week. That’s where the problem started. I started getting a burning pain in my legs as I went longer distances. It got worse and worse, until finally, in January, I couldn’t just suck it up anymore, and I called a doctor. They told me it was a vascular issue related to obesity, and I immediately got rid of all the garbage and tried to eat better. I’m pretty sure I lost weight in this period, but I hadn’t weighed myself since 2018, so I have no way of knowing.

In April, I physically went to the doctor, and she told me that my ideal weight shouldn’t be my age plus 200 pounds, so I downloaded a calorie-counting app and hired a weight loss coach. This was mid-April. I’m happy to say that I’ve lost 20 pounds in the past two-and-a-half months, but I’m still quite fat—I can’t see the difference in the mirror yet. However, I’m within spitting distance of my weight goal (when I hit that goal, I will set another, but for now, I just want to be 200 pounds again), and for the first time in a really long time, I feel like I don’t have to look like this forever, and I can’t begin to tell you how good that feels. I have felt repulsive for a long time, but oddly at peace about it, accepting that this was the way it was going to be forever.

The reason I’m sharing this today is that the last day of the month is weigh-in day, and the scale gave me the great news that, despite some slip-ups, I’ve lost eight pounds in June. I honestly can’t believe the kind of shit I used to eat, but that’s behind me. I’m feeling lighter and ready to go.

What’re YOU Lookin’ At?

Random memory: This was in New York in the fall of 1998, and Shane and I were relaxing out by a construction sight that would become Trump Tower (or was near an already constructed Trump Tower—that part’s pretty hazy). We happened upon a large piece of broken drywall, and Shane decided that this was art. He always carried around his pastels, so he set to work bringing it to life.

Wearing shirts and ties, and me in my trench coat, Shane observed that I looked like a goombah, and, with nothing else to do, I put on a really bad Mafia accent and started harassing passersby, saying, “What’re YOU lookin’ at? What’d’you think this is, an aht gallery?” I started telling anyone who would listen about the artist and the drawing, using as many gangster cliches as we could think of, such as, “Look at that linewerk, it’s pretty good considerin’ both his thumbs are broken. Hey, he owed me money,” and “See the woman he’s paintin’? That’s Angelita, his one true love. Killin’ her was the hardest thing he ever had to do. Maybe next time you’ll keep it in yer pants, Angelita! You too, Joey, God rest yer soul.”

Eventually we had to go to work, that’s what we were doing in the Upper West Side to begin with, so we left his art leaning up against the fence of a construction site, with no illusions as to its fate. We chatted about it for a while, and we thought it would be fun to actually do the schtick in an art gallery, where Shane would actually paint something and I would taunt the gallery-goers. Keep in mind, this was when The Sopranos was just starting, and Analyze This (or its sequel) was a huge hit at the box office, so mobsters were huge at the time. That was one of many dreams that Shane and I had together those first few months I lived in New York, and like many, it just lived on in our imaginations.

Special Agent, Man

Almost two months ago, I took an online class called, “How to Hook an Agent.” At the beginning of April, if you were paying attention, you may have recalled me stressing out about query letters or about how every other person in my class wanted to sell literature, and I had a superhero romance. Also, as I had not noted, I was the only one in the class with any experience trying to woo an agent.

The last class was a twenty-minute one-on-one with the agent teaching the class, where she would discuss any corrections made to the query as well as the requisite ten-page sample. The agent was incredibly positive about my book. She said there was a market for this kind of thing, and to avoid the label of romance because that’s a whole separate publishing industry that had its own rules and customs. She sent me a list of agents who were looking for work that was more fantastical.

After I explained the book to her a bit so that she might not have gotten from the sample and query, she asked me to send her more of the novel so she could get a feel for it. She told me up front that she probably wouldn’t be interested in it, so it’s not an agent query, but she might have some ideas for how I could better sell it, and she might even be able to give me a few names I can try to query.

I sent fifty-six pages to her about six weeks ago, and I haven’t heard back, and I don’t know what to do. She’s not a queried agent, and she’s not doing this for (potential) money, but as a favor to a student. I don’t even know how many students she’d done this with. Since she’s not a queried agent, then I shouldn’t be afraid of getting rejected. But if what I wrote was good, don’t you think she would have reacted to it by now? I know she loved the first ten pages, so what if the subsequent forty-six were a letdown, and she recommends I stop writing? She probably won’t do that. But I don’t know what to expect. I’ve gone from elation at her asking for more to trepidation at what she might say if I poke the bear.

I will probably write her, that much is clear, but what will I write? I don’t have the slightest clue. I keep getting blocked every time I think about it. And when do I reach out? I know that she will not write me unless I write her first, so what is a good time to allow to pass before I do write her?

This is why I went into self-publishing: it’s all on my schedule. Now I need to wait for someone else, and it’s making me a little crazy. I wish I could just write books and let other people worry about this stuff.

An Orange on a Toothpick

I watched this movie about a dozen times, maybe more, before I turned twenty. After I turned twenty, I’ve seen it twice, and the second time was last night. Watching it again, I understood what a formative role it had in the development of my identity as a social being, something I’ve fallen completely away from. The movie is So I Married an Ax Murderer.

Aside from the extreme nostalgia I feel for the movie, it doesn’t really hold up. It’s very nineties, seen mostly in the outfits Anthony LaPaglia wore, but also in locations like a beatnik coffee house and pre-tech-boom San Francisco, as well as oversized posters and Nancy Travis. This was before Mike Myers really solidified his brand, so he was looser here and a lot more charming, but you could still see, peeking through, cringeworthy habits that would ultimately lead to The Love Guru. I’ll be honest, I was DMing a friend about San Francisco the entire time the movie was on, and I didn’t miss a thing because I had the whole thing memorized, from all of the butcher-shop flirtations to my second-favorite rendition of “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” (My first will always be The Revolting Cocks. Sorry, Mike.)

I cannot overstate how much I wanted to be Mike Myers in this movie when I was young, specifically Charlie Stewart with his sentimental creativity and energetic sense of humor. I had his hair, coincidentally, for many years. I was trying to be my funniest at this point in my life, and this movie helped me develop that. (And no, I’m not talking about screaming out in a terrible Scottish accent, “Head! Pants! Now!”) I was never as funny as Mike Myers could be, but I held my own. I could never quite work out how to use humor as flirting, but again, I held my own. That was a long time ago. These days, when I’m relaxed, I can still be funny, but I don’t have the full-body gusto that I used to have. This movie made me really miss it.

I think, if you’re a certain age, it’s a pretty great little movie. Maybe you can remember the days when you and your peers pretended to be his Scottish father (also Mike Myers because, if there’s one thing he can never do wrong, it’s Scottish), shouting at each other, or maybe you’ll be amused by the love story, such as it was. It was an original story, not based on overexposed, underdeveloped Saturday Night Live characters, so it had that going for it. Mostly, it was a movie where they got this budding comedian to screw around on camera for ninety minutes, and you know what? It can be an absolute joy to watch. Next, I think I have a duty to write short essays about other movies I’ve seen over ten times and how they influenced my life. That means Face/Off and The Highlander.    

They’ll Be There for You

This is where I admit something weird about myself.

Have you ever been reading a book or watching a TV show or movie, or maybe watching a video essay on your favorite topic or hobby, and you think of the one you’re watching as a friend? I don’t mean they’re speaking to you or anything, but you know them so well, especially in the case of books, where you really get into their head. The extreme of this comes in the form of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing a few years back. It’s all the young people who wanted to date Loki, despite the fact that he’s, you know, evil. And lest you think I’m making this a young girl problem, witness the “Not my Doctor” people, predominantly men, who seem to think that the Doctor is a person, not a work of pretend created by a series of writers going back sixty years. One thing that often happens with internet stars is that people leave them cruel, teasing comments that would appropriate for close friends ribbing each other at a coffee shop, but not with a perfect stranger, all because they feel that stranger would get the joke.

If you have felt a connection with a fictional character or online personality, you don’t have to admit it. It’s a common enough occurrence that I know that some of you reading it have gone through it, and it even has a name: parasocial relationships. Literally, it means one-way relationships because the one you’re connecting to can’t share that connection with you. Parasocial relationships are actually quite healthy (unless you’re going to extremes about it, like threatening an actor who plays a particularly despicable character). They develop strong senses of empathy, and those who have these relationships tend to be better friends overall. We spend as much time, if not more, with these made-up people than we do with most real people, so if you’re going to build up a connection at all, it makes sense to form one with this presence in your life.

So you’re wondering where I’m going to confess the weird thing. Have I fallen deeply in love with middle-aged Punky Brewster? Do I think that Addie Larue in the novel I’m reading is the only one who could really get me? Is there someone online I recently propositioned after watching all her videos? Not quite. You may not realize this, but I’m a writer (I know! Shock! It’s almost as if it’s not, like, the only thing I ever talk about!), and as a writer, I create characters. You see where I’m going with this. It takes me about two months to write a novel, and in that two months, I live with these characters. I think about them when I wake up in the morning, when I’m cooking, cleaning, going on long walks, and when I go to bed at night. I infuse them with the traits of people I know and of myself, and I see the world from their point of view, finding the good in anything they do (even the bad guys because nobody sees themselves as the bad guys). For two months, these guys are my life, and then they’re gone. This wasn’t as much of a problem when I was writing a series because I could always return to them. When I wrote the On the Hedge series, I wrote them one after another, for almost a year and a half (those books are much longer than anything I have written since, so they took closer to three, three-and-a-half months a piece to write), and I never had to leave the characters behind. But now that I’m writing one-and-done novels predominantly, they’re gone for good.

It’s weird how much I love these guys because they’re not real. I have made them up. They don’t do anything I don’t tell them to do (even if I do go with the flow and try to let the story tell itself). I should not think of them as real people. Even as friends, they’re a camp friend at the most, one who doesn’t write you after they go home. But I still miss them and even mourn them a little when they’re gone. I wonder if this can even be classified as a parasocial relationship because these lives belong entirely to my whim.

I don’t know if I’m the only writer who feels this way. I can’t be. In a world where I can’t see my friends, these are the relationships I can turn to. I don’t know if this makes me maladjusted or just plain sad, but it’s my life right now. I just finished a novel, and I’m kind of bummed out. Let’s see who I meet with the next one.

Pitching a No-Hitter

I’m taking a class on how to attract a literary agent. I know I told myself that I wouldn’t put myself through this again, that I would be content self-publishing, but this opportunity came about, and I said, “You know what? I’ve got nineteen finished novels. I can take one off the schedule and shop it around.” So here I am. And it all went well until the back half of my first class, when the agent-teacher asked us to read our draft query letters to the whole class.

STUDENT: My book is a collection of literary short stories.

STUDENT: My book is a semi-autobiographical novel about fleeing Romania at the close of the Cold War.

STUDENT: My book is a biography of my grandmother, who came to this country and ended up in a Coca-Cola ad, and everything that happened after.

STUDENT: My book is a series of essays from the perspective of a comedian who has seen the talk-show circuit up close.

STUDENT: My book is a memoir of being a music video director of indie bands in the late eighties/early nineties.

STUDENT: My book is literary horror. [Literary horror is currently the hottest genre in publishing.]

STUDENT: My book is a scathing indictment of Reagan’s War on Drugs and how it permeates through our modern culture.

ME: My book is a superhero romance. [Record scratches. Someone drops a wine glass to the floor. The piano player stops playing. Crickets can be heard clearly in the distance.] I’ll see myself out.

The teacher, to her credit, treated my query with the same seriousness and focus that she treated the others, even the literary horror novel that she was drooling over, and I got a lot of great advice.

But I felt so, so silly, like I went to a big Halloween party, and I was the only one wearing a costume. I have, literally, no idea what I’m doing.

That Not-so-Fresh Feeling

I think one of the all-time highs of my time waiting tables was at the Village Inn, by the now-defunct mall in Hastings, Nebraska. This restaurant was open an hour past the last call of all the bars in the region, so Friday and Saturday nights after one a.m. were, I will say, quite colorful. One particular group of regulars owned a bar in nearby Blue Hill, and they appeared to be its biggest patrons. They were a rowdy bunch, but they tipped me in cases of beer, so, as a not-twenty-one-year-old, I was awfully permissive.

On the night in question, one of the women in the group, while waiting for her greasy breakfast food to arrive, emptied out her purse onto the table. She then grabbed every feminine hygiene product she had with plastic applicators, shoved them into her ears, her nostrils, and her mouth, like a pair of fangs, and flailed around, screaming, “I’m Tampon Lady! I’m Tampon Lady!” At that point, permissiveness wasn’t appropriate anymore, so my manager and I had to intervene. When she left, I quietly told them that it wasn’t my idea to come scold them, and I thought Tampon Lady was hilarious. Just like that, we were friends again, as evidenced by the case of beer under my car.

Even now, twenty-five years later, I wonder about Tampon Lady. Did she truly believe that with great power comes great responsibility? Is she still stalking the dark, unforgiving streets of Blue Hill, Nebraska on her hunt for justice? Did she pick up a sidekick, Pad Lad? Does she have a nemesis, The Red Tide? I will never know. I can only hope, as I gaze out into the full moon, that she is out there, the Absorbent Protector, the Stringed Crusader, looking up at that same moon, knowing that law and order is prevailing.

Tampon Lady, I salute you.

Lyfting of Spirits

As we pulled away from my apartment yesterday, George, my Lyft driver, asked me if I wanted to be in his movie. He was really insistent. I told him that I’d never acted before, and he told me that I just needed to say the line, “Where’s the bank?” He then let me know that he was just kidding, and that I looked like a bank robber in my mask, sunglasses, dark shirt, and leather blazer. My mask was covered in TARDISes, so I was the nerdiest bank robber around, but otherwise, I could see what he was talking about.

Normally I don’t like it when my drivers talk to me, but there was something special about ol’ George.

He told me that he’d done over thirty thousand trips, and he was getting really good at reading people. He said he liked to keep his mind sharp by talking to his passengers, and he was never wrong. He said he could guess how long I’d been in DC: Seven years. (I moved to the DMV area in 2008 and to DC proper in early 2019.) Then he said he could guess where I originated from, just by looking at me, even with the mask on: Portland. When I told him no, he said it was definitely Philly. (I’ve come from many places, but never a city that started with a P.)

He wasn’t even remotely fazed, which leads me to believe that he’s not never wrong when he talks to other passengers. We talked about a lot of things, like how, no matter how great a place, your typical teenager wants to get the hell out, how there’s nothing to see in Kansas, how the passenger he dropped off before picking me up was hitting on him, and how everyone calls him sir, and he, for one, is sick of it.

When he dropped me off at my destination, and I found a place to sit, I took out my phone and gave him all the stars, as well as a hefty tip. And when the app told me that my ride home was going to be George, I held my breath waiting, only to find out it was someone else named George, who gave me a respectful silence the whole way.

This Is Where I Live

Please indulge me while I make it about me for a second:

This is my home. I live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, along with thousands upon thousands of other people. I don’t keep a home here and go back to my constituency every summer and winter. I don’t intern here and go back to where I came from. And I sure as hell don’t go to places where other people live and try to overthrow the government.

I live close to the National Guard Armory, and during our nightly walks, my roommate and I stroll by it. We have never seen people there before this month. Dozens of buses filled with camouflage-wearing men and women have been pulling up. The streets are full of soldiers, and armored vehicles drive past my block constantly.

The Capitol is close to my apartment. It’s far enough that a walk home from there while having to go to the bathroom is agony, but it’s close enough that it dominates the skyline if I walk a couple of blocks. It’s close enough that, if some entitled psychopaths decided to start torching residences, it wouldn’t take them long to reach me.

There is a park six blocks from my apartment where I go every weekend to have a latte and write. It’s full of young couples with their babies and children punching while their mothers tell them to “CUT THAT OUT!” Older people (who are, to my horror, not much older than I) go to the café on the outskirts there for meetups. There is a dog park there I’m not sure is actually a dog park, but put enough affluent people in a place with dogs, and it becomes one. Right-wing groups have been posting that they are using it as a gathering ground before they start their upcoming insurrections.

Restaurants in my neighborhood are not allowed to have outdoor seating until the end of the month. My doctor’s office closed because no one can get to the building through the barricades. There is an eight-foot fence surrounding the Capitol, previously one of the most accessible government buildings.

They don’t care. The people who are coming to town over the coming week to disrupt the legitimate swearing in of a new president couldn’t give a shit about the lives they’re disturbing, about the fact that they’re putting a city under martial law. It doesn’t matter to them because they are RIGHT. They are on a CRUSADE. The president they voted for, who isn’t all that popular in the first place, is the TRUE LEADER, and they don’t care whose lives they have to disrupt to make this TRUE.

This is my home. I’m so tired.