Finding Your Artistic Community: Reviews of SF, LA, NY, Paris and Berlin

Yesterday I finished my final class of my final creative writing workshop at UCLA. My professor, Mona Simpson, reminded us as always to begin cultivating a community of writers, and the words rang true this time more than ever because a few of us were facing the reality of a writing world without due dates, without check-ins, without peer support. I think a lot of creating good work comes from the community you find yourself in. What do you want people to say when you meet them at parties and mention you're a writer? Who do you want to look up and see when you're typing away on your novel in a coffee shop? These are the questions you have to ask yourself when you're thinking of where you'll land, and where you'll make a home for both yourself and your work. Work can thrive on being placed in the right conversation. Although not everyone can live in a major metropolis, I'm taking it upon myself to review the artistic cities I've flirted with.

I did my first two years of undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. Nestled into the central coast I was surrounded by natural beauty but did not get much work done. When I studied abroad in Berlin before coming to UCLA, I felt like a starving person being force fed pate and caviar. The city was teeming with inspiration. From there I spent some time in Paris, and in the following years I have lived in LA with a brief sojourn to Manhattan in the middle. These are my impressions of doing creative work in these places, starting with a reflection on my home city, San Francisco.

San Francisco (For the record, LA hipsters, you're the only ones calling it Frisco and hoping to be lauded as in-the-know natives)

Taken in San Francisco

While full of coffee shops and views, SF always makes me feel like I've gone rogue when I'm writing in public. Its history as a bawdy, brawling mining town is fast dissipating as it becomes the bourgeois capital of fair trade farmer's markets and scrumptious artisanal coffee. It's becoming quite cost prohibitive to live right in the city, but the East Bay is getting more and more vibrant with an artistic scene. San Francisco is also home to a literary culture that says "we don't need your approval." The Rumpus is a killer and unpretentious publication, and it goes without saying that McSweeney's is the ultimate in creating a new literary conversation and community. Not to mention the long legacy of Zyzzyva as the "last word in West Coast fiction." My most persistent qualm with my home city is that I'm a writer that prefers a more present underbelly than I've been able to perceive in SF on my last few visits. What with the all the tech money being funneled in I wouldn't be surprised to find that the Tenderloin will be nothing but a memory within a decade or less. It feels very much like a war of gentrification is being waged, but regardless you can't beat the romance of a jingling trolley car or of eating cannoli in North Beach.

New York

"Double Exposure" - taken in Morningside Heights

"Double Exposure" - taken in Morningside Heights

Comparing cities to stimulants is so passe I want to cry, so instead of telling you NYC is like caffeine, I'll do my best to describe the city's effects. Simply sitting in the Hungarian pastry shop in Morningside Heights or grabbing a bite next to the Strand Bookstore I felt that helpless hysteria you get when you see your favorite celebrity onscreen or walking casually past you in a mall. I sat with my notebook and a copy of Principles of Uncertainty in Greenwich Village and listened to a jazz quartet, feeling the lineage of the many, many artists who'd come before me. While New York is always giving you new faces, scenarios, and weirdos to treat as artistic subjects, it's also continually bringing up your lack of accomplishment. Do you know what Allen Ginsberg was doing here at your age on this very street? it asks, impatient. While we all need a boot now and again, this is underscored by the general conversation that everybody's "an artist," a term unparalleled in the lack of work needed to legitimize itself, so there's the ever-present illusion that everyone around you is succeeding and in spades.  


My drawing spot on Savignyplatz in Berlin

My drawing spot on Savignyplatz in Berlin

My artistic experiences in Berlin can be summed up by two episodes. The first took place at Suicide Circus, a nightclub just on the Friedrichshain side of the Oberbaum Brucke. One drops below street level to enter the club, which is perched just next to the train tracks. It is divided into two rooms, one partially outdoor, and filled with quirky furniture and an assortment of colored lighting. If you order a cocktail they give you a confused look, wondering why you didn't simply take care of this at one of the many cozy bars within a stone's throw of the club's entrance. The night I was there in August of 2012, in the indoor room they were showcasing some brand of electronic music that didn't yet have a name in English, but what it amounted to was slow-motion mechanical grinding along with a throb so lackadaisical if it were a human heartbeat that human would be experiencing an agonizing hypothermic organ failure. On a large screen were various objects caked in fresh mud being hosed down, but of course the film was artificially put into slow motion so ambitiously plodding that as each droplet of water struck the mud-covered shoe or hydrant it felt like a major event of epic proportions. Because our culture doesn't exactly foster the same attitude of severity about such artistic endeavors, my only available reaction was steadily worsening laughter to the point where entranced couples in matching ray-ban eyeglasses would turn around to shush me with a vigor only paralleled by the desperate twitches of the metallic insect now drowning in the muddy water onscreen. So that said, Berlin takes art very, very seriously even if, in my opinion, it's not great. 

The second incident, which was much more charming, was the afternoon I sat at the Italian restaurant by the S-Bahn on Savignyplatz sketching everything in front of me. The air was thick and humid with imminent rain, I drank a pristine Riesling, and nibbled on panna cotta. An old man, stooped but marching on, stopped a moment to adjust his tweed suit and caught sight of what I was working on. He shuffled over, stood silently next to me, looked at the drawing, up at my view, and back to the drawing. He moved back into my line of sight, nodded happily, and moved along. In Berlin, you'll find nothing but tacit approval for your work. Not everybody's an artist, but reverence for art appears to supersede even religion in Berlin. And as an added bonus, I knew an upright bass player there who made decent money playing music on the street with his band.


A sketch I did in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris

I said above you want to consider people's reactions when you say you're a writer. The answer in Paris is, "Hmm, of course you are." I felt in fact that I needed to clarify my artistic intentions in order to legitimize myself, even in a social setting. Not only that, but I had to be clear too about what I dabbled in: "Oh, I'm a writer but I have tried visual art and I play guitar." This was always met with more nonplussed nodding. Art intersects in Paris with the political as well. I can't count the number of times in just a few weeks that I was asked what Americans think of Sarkozy. That put me in the position of choosing whether to pretend "Americans" in general even knew who he was, or admitting there are quite a few in our population of 300 million who couldn't find France on a map. But Paris is an atmosphere that welcomes you in as an artist without chiding you on your accomplishments. Countless times I'd settle into a cafe, watch the passersby while scarfing down a Jambon Paris, and indulge my own ruminations on existence until it was time for the next meal. And I found there was an unparalleled availability of people willing to discuss such matters with little to no preamble, just an attitude of "here's some wine, here's some cheese, what else do we have to do other than evaluate the Sisyphean nature of our own lives?"

Los Angeles

An Instagram from a recent sojourn to Bricks and Scones--a west-LA writer's haven/coffee shop

An Instagram from a recent sojourn to Bricks and Scones--a west-LA writer's haven/coffee shop

Ah, my lovely City of Angels. You get a bad rap. But the reality is you suffer the slings and arrows of all this abuse because it just gives you more to smirk about when confronted with people who don't get it. Yes, we're a capital of spray tans, sure our congested freeways are teeming with Kardashians in their Range Rovers, but what few people stop to think about is that the movie business is a place where artistic people can do creative work AND MAKE MONEY FOR IT. If you want to spend your day in a coffee shop, everyone will be working on their screenplays. At the first day of my internship I found out this was a place where binge-watching Netflix was not only encouraged, but necessary to do your job well. You have to know what's going on because everybody's a film and TV nerd. My dad, whenever he visits, reminds me that the best thing about LA is, and I quote, that "nobody gives a shit." It's truer here than anywhere. You want to be an artist? Fine, go for it. You want to have a mohawk and be covered in tattoos? You'll probably get hired to a studio no problem as long as you're talented. Everybody does their thing unperturbed. And while inspiration isn't just hitting you in the face like in New York, and the pubic transportation leaves quite a lot to be desired, you're within driving distance at all times from every world cuisine, every oddity, every book reading or concert you'd ever want to consume. Because what is a tour if you don't stop in LA? The literary scene is blossoming here, too, and we're all about subverting the norms. LA Zine Fest is one event that proves we've got a lot going on, as does the scene at such gems as Skylight Books in Los Feliz. So if you want to do your thing in peace surrounded by an unpretentious community, LA's your spot.

On Creating for the New Year

This post was migrated over from my tumblr

As you may know if you read the Notes app on my phone, my new year’s resolutions this year included writing more blog posts here on this blog. Along with that were promises to finish videos, write a few songs, and continue to try and placate the two-headed creativity/recognition monster.

What I mean is that often when I sit down to write or make a movie or play guitar, I get stage fright of what people might think once the thing is out in the world. This anticipation of the need for recognition defeats the creativity before it gets going. Perhaps a two-headed monster isn’t the best metaphor but you get the idea.

One thing I admire about Google is their idea that everything is in beta—they release things before they’re ready in order to benefit from feedback. Any why don’t we apply that idea to producing literature or art? Because as artists it’s our job alone to decide on the doneness of what we make? I think that maybe it’s time to stop judging worth on where the artist left the thing before putting it out in the world, but on the way the artist harnesses feedback to grow an idea, a story, a song.

I love Father John Misty. Josh Tillman put together a beautiful album with “Fear Fun.” But as he toured, the songs became better and better. He changed lyrics, like in “Writing A Novel” where

And livin’ on amusement rides… (source)


And livin’ lives that look like mine… (source)

Which to me makes so much more sense and is a more elegant way of tying things together in the song. Right now he’s touring new songs with the old ones and I assume the next album will benefit from this (if you will) artistic beta testing. 

So my pledge for the new year is not just to create and then sweat it out in the editing stage telling myself “no it’s not ready.” The new motto is, “Yeah, it’s not ready, but I’m putting it out there.”

And you should do the same.

More clickin’:
Austin Kleon on creativity (Brain Pickings)
Ira Glass on putting out creative work (Which I found in this month’s Rookie Mag editor’s letter)


On Fan Fiction

This post was migrated over from my tumblr

When I wrote fan fiction it was an exercise of complete shame. As I gained a following my mom implored me to put links to my stories in my college applications. I blanched at the thought—academia and whatever I was doing with my evenings were entirely separate. Separated by an electric fence. I couldn’t employ the strategies I learned in AP Composition to the relationships I was inventing between various characters in the Harry Potter universe. 

The reality, of course, was that it was an extremely formative textual exercise. I read and re-read J.K. Rowling’s novels for time lapses, periods unaccounted for, into which I could justifiably squeeze my narratives. This was called adhering to canon, and if my relationships failed to have happy endings due to the fact that JKR saw them as doomed, I’d post my completing chapters and watch the enraged reviews file into my inbox and watch my five-star ratings waver into four-stars.

Before I ever arrived at college, a solid five years before my first creative writing class, my betas, or volunteer editors, taught me everything I know about how to grammatically incorporate quotes, “he saids,” and cliffhangers into stories. Thus enabling me to smugly call out right answers in the creative writing room about why the letter after a question mark in quotes was never to be capitalized unless it was a proper noun.

I learned creative writing mechanics, about processing rejection and adoration. I knew the prizes came in lesser measure than the claims that the works were fascicle or without heart. I was engaging with reader-response instantly, which I would argue paints a much more reasonable portrait of where literature is going.

If you read books within the Kindle app, it shows where quotes have been most highlighted (cheat: it’s always the pithy aphorisms). YouTube reviews and accessibility to authors either in the John Green sense or on GoodReads make “the literary conversation” far more crowd-sourced than it used to be—far more so than my professors yet recognize or are willing to admit. Please tell me that literature is in decline when centuries ago it cost a fortune to get your hands on a manuscript whereas today you can download one in seconds to be devoured on your computer. Tell me literature is in decline when teens in the Philippines and Brazil celebrate American YA fiction along with us over the internet. 

So because literature, realistically, is becoming more and more available, the powers that be have less power. Reader response is no longer subject to a hierarchy of criticism divided into separate schools. This is a double edged sword since on the one hand, the fabled “old, dead white guys” have less hold on us, but at the same time literary lineage is being thrown a little by the wayside. UCLA, in fact, recently overhauled its English major to no longer explicitly require Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare. How are we to understand where we are if we don’t know where we came from? 

I’ll tell you what my theory is. Last quarter I took “Introduction to LGBT Studies,” and toward the end of the course we had a guest speaker come in to trace the lineage of “slash” fan-fiction, arguing that fan fiction is a way of establishing queer narratives in pop culture. Fan Fiction itself appears to be becoming a new wave of textual analysis and way of understanding where the literary movement comes from. Sherlock fan ficcers have to read Conan Doyle with a fine-tooth comb for inspiration. The really good stuff finds a place for itself among the conversation of a fandom, just as a good novel wedges into the literary conversation.  That’s why I think a study of fan fiction perhaps in twenty years will be crucial to an English degree. Studying the literary movements of the masses says what’s going on just as much as only studying what’s coming out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Maybe in forty years there will be a place on your college application to insert the URL of your latest fic.

This, of course, is all part of the revolution of the nerd. TV programming used to pitch blandly to the 50% of viewers, and now selects down to tighter and tighter niches, allowing “nerds” to be catered to. With that comes the unabashed passion and love you find in the comments on vlogbrothers videos. Pop culture, despite its massive flaws, appears to be becoming more and more egalitarian in the face of all this reader response. Game of Thrones reacts to twitter, every NBC show is on Facebook.

So rather than allow culture to craft us, everybody who can tweet can craft culture right back. And everybody who’s plugging away at a novel-length fan fiction has the chance of being studied in universities long before they die without recognition. That’s the instantaneousness we’ve created for ourselves with modernity and all this technological connection. With hyper-speed comes hyper-responsibility, though, so edit closely and read aloud before you click submit on that latest chapter of Sherlock/Watson erotica.

Further Reading/Viewing:

Emily Nussbaum on Sherlock’s “Fan Friction”

Vlogbrothers’ FAQ

My Pre-1900 Formative Influence: Shakespeare

This post was migrated over from my tumblr

For my Creative Writing senior capstone seminar we had an assignment to write a short piece about one of our formative influences who was writing before the 20th century. I chose Shakespeare and the following piece came out:

When you’re directing a Shakespeare play, you find out two things very quickly:

  1. Everybody knows Shakespeare
  2. Nobody knows Shakespeare

By this I mean 99.999% of everyone I meet has heard of Shakespeare. Whether they know anything besides “to be or not to be,” or if they know that “wherefore art thou Romeo” actually means “why are you Romeo” and not “where are you, Romeo,” is actually quite rare in the general population. And then it selects from there into smaller and smaller groups until you’re left with those who would attend a Shakespeare play and then those who would act in one. Then you’ve got me—I chose to direct Macbeth this quarter and am slowly and happily losing my mind as I grapple with making these centuries-old words pithier and more relevant to my actors and my future imaginary audience.

The third thing you come to understand when directing Shakespeare is that there is very little beyond the character names and the text that is objectively known or that you can take for granted. You can be working on a scene for days and then suddenly it clicks—Macbeth is trying to have a soliloquy, not a conversation. Hamlet fades in and out of real and postural madness. The kids in Midsummer might be smarter than they seem. Maybe Romeo and Juliet’s story does condemn young love at the same time as romanticizing it. Shakespeare’s plays have lasted not just because they’re quite good—they tug at the heart, they manipulate language—but because of this elusiveness. Because we can spend centuries reproducing the same play and it means something new each time it’s onstage. And then it’s gone again—never letting us slacken our thirst for reinterpretation.

So, if you’re writing in the current vein of realist prose, how do you lift the effective stuff out of Shakespeare for re-appropriation in your own writing? Chasing that elusiveness, for me, is something to keep in mind in my editing. I’m an over-elaborator—it speaks to my anxiety about whether the reader gets where I’m going. If my writing weakness were personified it would be the guy ending every sentence with “you know what I mean?” So when I edit, I remember that Shakespeare left few answers on the page. Part of this, of course, is medium, but there’s no reason not to make a short story or novel a little more like a play. Allow your characters to speak for themselves. Allow for sparser descriptions of their interiors. Reveal their interiors through action and occasional spoken admission. Furthermore, allow a story to suggest multiple meanings. This of course can look like it’s reaching when applied to young writing, but it’s always my goal to have a story tight enough that ambiguity looks intentional rather than like a mistake.

Another vital lesson to take away not so much from Shakespeare’s text itself but from its many stagings is that it doesn’t hurt to tread lightly when it comes to symbolism. Shakespeare left many similes about ill-fitting clothing in Macbeth, and early in our production process we were trying to decide whether we should dress Macbeth himself in baggy robes. I think this is a fairly common human preclusion to say: “I understand these subtle diction strategies, so let’s blow out these symbols so everybody can see them!” There are ways to make symbols work for you, but if you’re an amateur at whatever you’re trying, be it being on a production team for a play or writing a story, it’s much more important to look closely and skeptically at how symbols don’t work than trying to pepper your work with symbols and motifs to find out which ones do. This might just be a matter of personal opinion, but I think my job as a young writer is to hang back and take close notes on what works and what doesn’t. Shakespeare’s comparison of Macbeth’s possession of the kingship to a man in baggy robes—fantastic, pithy. Casting a slight-built actor as Macbeth and putting him in a lumpy cape—not so much. The same rings true for amateur writing. It reminds me of a scene in 30 Rock when Liz, feeling outdated and looking for a writing job, meets Aaron Sorkin in a waiting room.

He says of writers: “We’re horse-and-buggies and the first Model T just rolled into town.”

“We’re dinosaurs,” she agrees.

“We don’t need two metaphors,” he snaps. “That’s just bad writing.”

The same is true of motif. Layering multiple motifs and corresponding symbols and flowery language onto a five-page short story is a recipe for chaos unless that’s your specialty and you know what you’re doing (and you’ve been writing for 30 years).

In that case, I’m looking at my stories as testing grounds for these two things I’m stealing from Shakespeare: elusiveness and effective symbols. I’m always asking when it’s ok to hang back, and how to explicate more efficiently and seamlessly. The next question is: would this story benefit from a consistent thread of symbols? I tried that out in the story I submitted as an example of my work for this class (which I’ll post on this blog sooner or later). The boar at the end of the story got a perfectly split response from my peers in the workshop. Some thought it was campy, others didn’t get it, some loved it and cornered me after class to insist I keep it in.

That’s the problem of course with effectiveness. Is it effective if it’s effective to me, or if everyone loves it? Not everybody loves Shakespeare, but some adore him. Maybe being dead or pretending to be dead to reader response is a good selective tactic to learn from the guy, too.

Elaine Blair on Hooking Up

This post was migrated over from my tumblr

Think back to the last middle-of-the-road, less-than-fulfilling sexual encounter you saw portrayed on TV. Now think of another one. If you’re at a loss, you’re in the same camp as Elaine Blair.

Blair, a literary and cultural critic, recently gave a talk on the UCLA campus wherein she stressed the importance of the documentation of these acts, along with the revelation that while sex without commitment is supposed to be a gift from the feminist movement, that maybe no one is really enjoying “hooking-up” as much as they are engaging in a perfunctory performance of the rite of passage.

While she did not definitively take a stance, she feels that the discussion is closely tied with a re-reading of seminal feminist texts to root out the source of our generation’s confused attitude toward the purpose of sex and of the fleeting relationships that construct themselves around the pursuit of it.

The reality, Blair emphasized, is that beyond Lena Dunham, few women are speaking for themselves on the topic of unsatisfactory sex. The full ramifications of this remain to be seen, but for now this lack of conversation allows the cultural portrayal of hooking-up to remain perhaps better than reality.

I wonder, of course, how anyone could make an across the board decision on how much “people” are enjoying any one thing, but I do see the point. We take our cues so often from the stream of culture assailing us from every angle, and because it feels that so little of the culture we take in is produced by women, it can be hard to tell what women at large are thinking. Of course, one can tune into the “feminist point of view” by reading blogs like (despite its bitchiness) or, if we aren’t to separate the queer feminist agenda from the mix, the much more entertaining and smart It is true though that a burgeoning new feminist perspective is making its way into the media. In my observation gradually fewer works are failing the Bechdel Test, but this is a great moment to advocate more narratives written about sex by women. And E.L. James just isn’t cutting it.