Monday, April 22, 2013

Being a Writer vs. Living as a Writer: The Story and the Stories about the Story

“And how much of that have you actually accomplished?” the third poet asks me. I had started the conversation when we were in line for the toilet, and now we’re packed into the door jam of the tiny venue, discussing what I do in Amsterdam. He had asked me if I study or work here? I answered I was working on a novel and a poetry chapbook inspired by my experience sailing on a cargo ship from Argentina to Belgium last summer. The stories about the story. 

“You rode on a cargo ship?” 

I answer the question the way I usually do, with the story I no longer want to tell: Yeah, I took a cargo ship across the Atlantic… it took 35 days... it was an Italian cargo ship... no, I didn’t work on the ship... My trademark Californian monotone. My gaze fixed toward the floor. I’ve told the story so much I now regard it as boring. Still, it remains central to my creative output. Still, it was immensely formidable to the following months. Still, my subconscious brandishes it like a medal of honor: in a recent nicotine patch dream I tried to choke out the story to long estranged friends I haven’t seen in years.

Interactive component of the MAS Museum in Antwerp, Belgium

In so many cities, in so many months I’ve used the stories about the story of the cargo ship as an alibi as if I needed one to be present: I’ve told artists, poets, landlords, friends, strangers, family members, and roommates that I’m writing a novel and a chapbook about my experience on a cargo ship. I’m trying to decide how much to make fiction and how much to make an historical account of oceanic shipping; I’m trying to decide how long the chapbook should be, how many individual poems I should include.

Shipping route diagram in the Port of Antwerp exhibit at the MAS Museum

I’m on a high speed train to Belgium, I’m sleepwalking through the Houston airport sobbing behind Versace sunglasses, I’m in a bar in New Orleans’s Marigny yelling above the jukebox, I’m getting ready to go to a squatter art space/dance club in Amsterdam and all the time I’m dragging the shackles of the story and the stories about the story behind me. I’m disappointed when people don’t ask more questions; I’m put out when someone latches on to its uniqueness. 

Gloves hanging above Hazenstraat in Amsterdam

But this is the thing: I’ve written in the novel only once since I left Amsterdam last fall. I’ve worked on the poetry chapbook only a few times since the New Year. My alibi is a fraud. 

* * *

The public library is typically low key for a weekend night. I’m curled up in one of the chairs by the windows on the 6th floor that cups its form around your body. Amsterdam’s understated yet enchanting skyline sits modestly across the Oosterdok and I’m not ashamed to be alone in the library on a Saturday night, chuckling to myself over the latest novel I’ve plucked from the Engels – Romans section. In fact, I am quite pleased with myself. 

Colorful view above Damsplein in Amsterdam;
twice yearly a carnival occupies the square

A couple weeks ago I sat in a kitchen in Antwerp and typed Skype messages as raindrops fell on the skylight above my head. I was messaging a very important figure that, in many ways, is the emblem of the cargo ship story and the novel/poetry-turned-alibi. Mikhail, my steward. Finishing my coffee and itching for a shower, I shook my head and turned off the screen of my iPad without responding to his last message. I rubbed my eyes wearily. I turned the iPad back on and tweeted, “I’m watching the end of my story develop right before my eyes.” It was settled, for me at least: I was never going to see him again. 

Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium

More recently I passed out seven copies of a 13-page nonfiction essay double spaced and printed on good quality A4 sized paper to my writers workshop. In the weeks between sitting under the skylight in Antwerp and this moment in my writers workshop I had written and revised this essay four times. I pitched it to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and compiled a mental list of other places to submit it. I declined invitations to go out with my roommates and friends to work on this essay instead; I willfully logged off Twitter to turn my attention toward this essay. The subject of the essay was not the cargo ship, it was not the novel about the cargo ship, it was not the poetry chapbook about the cargo ship, and it was not even set within the last year. It went back to the beginning of 2011, to the time of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and all that shook and flooded my private experiences of the same time. 

I am prey to a dangerous type of nostalgia: my nostalgia misdirects the affection for a specific place, time, and aura as affection for the current existence of the people who were there with me. The shorter the time period, the intenser the experience, the more likely this dangerous nostalgia will take root in my heart. I am left wandering neighborhoods that belong to the past alone, longing for the zeitgeist of the past period and obsessively remembering the people who use to be there. The only way to time travel and avoid sentimentality is to write, to encapsulate that past moment and its energy in a coherent composition. 

Facades on the island of Procida in Naples Province, Italy

In this way I mix up being a writer and living as a writer: there is some division between living the experiences that make for good stories and actually writing the stories, and I am still trying to find it. 

* * *

I’m dodging parked cars, laundry lines, scooters, and other pedestrians down Gradoni Chiaia in Naples; I’m growing dizzy watching the chaos of tiny cars, scooters, and motorcycles revolve around the Umberto-Sanfelice traffic circle; I’m swooning from the quiet solace the view from Castle St. Elmo provides on top of the hill, a breath-taking vantage of the city, its port, the bright Tyrrhenian Sea golden in the setting sun. This is where my people from the ship come from, and I recognize the willingness of the locals to communicate in bad Spanish, broken English, and gestures as the same welcoming temperament I found on the ship.

Congested traffic route of Gradoni Chiaia/Via St. Caterina  da Siena, Naples, Italy

I find Chief Chef Rafael’s cuisine in the courses served at Osteria della Mattonella one street over from our apartment: fried cod with its bones intact submerged in marinara sauce with floating olives and a soup of blended spinach with beans. I find the motion and familiar signage of my cargo ship in the ferry to the island of Ischia. I find Crescenzo’s hand movements in the baker’s and the private car driver’s communication methods. I find Fabio’s boyish good looks in the countenances of baristas running espresso shots down the narrow, cobble-stone streets. I find Gigi’s plump figure and sad smile buzzing through traffic on Corso Vittorio Emanuele on a grey Vespa. 

View of gulf of the Tyrrhenian Sea with cargo ship from Castle St. Elmo, Naples, Italy

I am here with my travel companion, a good old friend from Los Angeles, and I will not see anyone from the ship. I suppose I am trying to create new memories but really I am chasing the zeitgeist of the Grande Buenos Aires; despite this I fight my dangerous nostalgia with a reticent, road-worn heart. I observe Naples as an outsider; I will never delve into the real life experience of a Napolitano. Bittersweet is an understatement in this sense. I will spend most of my trip alternating between the melancholy this causes me and the euphoria the invigorating beauty brings me.

Panorama of Pompeii, Italy

It’s somewhere between Positano and Pompeii, on the only highway to and from the Almafi Coast, Via Guglielmo Marconi, that I realize it’s ok to wait a couple years to write the stories about the story of the cargo ship. It’s the distance I need to separate living as a writer from the coherent composition that will take shape. Sitting on top of a green hill at the back of the ancient town of Pompeii and lapping up the vista of the ruins, the modern town just at the border, and the Tyrrhenian at the horizon, I take solace in my recent writing endeavors: encapsulating the zeitgeist of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in an essay, encapsulating my sleep deprived sophomore Spring semester in a poem, encapsulating the denial of the abandonment of my step-mother during my 4th grade Easter play in a poem. I don’t think these experiences are validated by the essays or the poems; the essays and poems are validated by my willingness to submerge myself in the original experience. 

View of Naples, the port, and the base of Mt. Vesuvio, Italy

As Clarice Lispector wrote, “I’ve looked into myself and discovered I want raw, bloody life.”