The Process Involves Nesting

Contents of the writer’s “office,” which is actually one corner of the master-bedroom suite:

1) Non-writing Desk—retained from childhood, pine, recently refinished in “honey pine” and accented with ceramic knobs purchased from Anthropologie. Used solely as surface on which to place reading materials.

Items associated with non-writing desk:

Two stacks of about ten paper-back books each, to read

Stack of hard-bound books, already read, heavily tabbed

Two stacks of three-ring binders containing notes and drafts

Stack of spare folders beneath stack of printer paper

Guitar tuner (Shouldn’t be there, but where to put it?)

 

2) Writing Desk—purchased from Target, stained “mahogany,” made of unknown wood. Official site where writing supposedly takes place.

Items associated with writing desk:

Padded leather dining chair

Two-drawer metal file cabinet

Laser-jet printer

Laptop computer

Paper tray

Table lamp

Textbook of Schizophrenia

Framed photo of self and husband

Unframed photo of younger sister and brother, aged five and four

Corduroy pencil box containing: ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, highlighter pens

 

3) Free-standing half-section of long sofa—midcentury-modern style in black pleather, purchased with other half at an estate sale. Unofficial site where writing most often actually takes place.

Items associated with sofa:

Down comforter

Large pillow

Antique portable TV stand

Floor lamp (very flimsy; must be careful not to bump)

Power strip joining cords for laptop, printer, lamps, phone charger

 

4) Framed black-and-white art photograph—hanging on wall, titled “She Knew the Game Was Fixed But Played On Anyway.”

The image is a self-portrait of the photographer, Lauren Simonutti, who struggled with schizophrenia for many years and spoke and wrote eloquently about her experiences. She committed suicide in 2012. The writer seeks both inspiration and moral support from this portrait and feels at once pain and joy when she glances at it, as it reminds her that she is uncertain about all things, including her own future and the future of her book. The writer feels that these feelings are appropriate, and should be part of the process.

The Process Involves Wormholes

“Undoubtedly you will try to make art out of this beautiful ephemera, the merging of the past with the present, because you’re artists, chroniclers of who you are, and who you might be, and who we all are, together.”—Hilton Als

My brain is a scattered landscape that my mind inhabits freely, without many constraints. This of course makes modern life challenging but it is at least conducive to creative writing. It enables me to follow the branches on my web of associations to wherever they may lead. Memory, we all know, typically ignores chronology, and even when it seems to be arranging itself thematically, its themes and the ones I’m trying to pursue are rarely the same. Moreover it changes course often, winding here to an amethyst necklace on one day and to a shallow, muddy pond on another. So it leads me astray as often as not, opening up wormholes that I slide in, so that I then find myself going on about something far removed from what I meant to say—something perhaps irrelevant but compelling to me in this moment—often for reasons I can’t explain. Wormholes are shape-shifters and that’s part of what makes them beautiful. And they’re muscular too, strong enough to keep me wrestling until the words are out, released, finally taking on their own existence, separate from me.

Part of being a memoirist is knowing when to let yourself slide into one of these wormholes and when not to. As if we have that much control. More often, I just let myself go there and then remove the text if it doesn’t work within my larger vision for the piece. My computer is loaded with Word files containing these scraps, one or two or eight page spewings about some incident that may or may not make its way into my book. Sometimes I write down a description of an event and then set it aside for years, waiting to catch up with it by way of other words. Waiting to suddenly have a place to insert it, a place where it’s perfect, a place that needs it and is made better by it. And then I’m grateful that I wrote it down that first time, when it drew itself up organically from the morass of my recollections and so was pulsing and writhing in my mind at the time I threw it down and made it exist.

The Process Does Not Always Involve Walking

Watching footage of Los Angeles’s streets at night, despite the caché of their claim as the birthplace of film noir, it is hard not to ask: Why would anyone choose to live this way? Without walking? I have considered as much while trying, often failing, to walk around in the town I live in—Tucson, Arizona, where five decades of car-centered development has resulted in mind-boggling sprawl and a valley of a million inhabitants that, even in daylight, often feels like a ghost town.

In Tucson many streets have no sidewalks at all, and when I go on walks I often find myself dodging cars, forced to walk in the road itself even when traffic is significant. Streetlights, too, are so rare in some neighborhoods that people wear headlamps to take their dogs out at night. Streets tend to be wide, boulevard-like, convenient for cars but lacking crosswalks and walk signals. Worse is the extraordinary absence of shade, though the sun beats down hard some 275 days a year and the temperature can top 100 degrees for three or four months on end.

I have complained of the absence of trees along the sidewalks, which often means the difference between a pleasant walk and a brutal walk, and I’ve heard people respond with the nugget that trees can’t grow here. This is entirely untrue, as they could see if they looked around. There are species that grow fine in this desert—palo verde, mesquite, and a couple others. It’s just that no one has ever planted shade trees next to the sidewalks. Buildings too could cast shadows into the street but instead are set far back, behind yards and parking lots. So to take a break from writing I surf the web and stew in my juices instead of going outside and getting them flowing and the ideas moving and the feelings freed up. The process is frustrated when walking is impossible.

As I stew, thinking about obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety, I wonder why indeed anyone would choose this. Perhaps noir itself offers the best answer: Humans are flawed, and our flaws sometimes constitute our undoing.

The Process Involves Walking

This means walking city streets, alone. Nature is lovely of course but I don’t find enough there to look at that inspires me, and it is too still to promote the right flow of thoughts—no people. In a city the slow, steady movement around me, and of my own limbs, releases my mind to wander through its own territory, setting me loose to daydream, sort through things, generate ideas. Also it uplifts, eases the tension that comes with the tendency to brood. And it provides the chance to look at things, outside the insulated bubble of my car, level with the world itself and beholden to it fully. Not focusing much on any one thing but just wandering, taking it in. Noticing and experiencing the people and their movements, the social fabric that I spend my life trying to somehow capture, represent, express in words.

Of course, not every city is good for this kind of walking. In the BBC documentary series The Story of Film, the director Mark Cousins argues that it’s no accident that Los Angeles was the birthplace of film noir. It’s not obvious why this would be until you begin to think like a filmmaker, and see that the streets of Los Angeles contain few walkers, are not friendly to walkers, are not built for human interaction. Are a perfect visual expression of modern isolation.

Los Angeles, Cousins says in a voiceover, is a city that becomes deserted at night. Over shots of bare strips of concrete, he goes on to say that since nearly everyone drives, the sidewalks empty at night. For the same reason, streetlights are few and far between, so the streetscape is unusually dark for a large city. The majority of the light often comes from large display windows backlit by cold fluorescent bulbs left on in shops that front the street—strikingly similar, he points out, to the streaming, shadow-casting lighting of classic noir. The mood of L.A. at night, we see, is quite creepy and very lonely. So film noir, inspired by these visuals, was born like a love child in that city resembling no other. This is how you have Bogart waiting by a curb with the shadow of a pole cast across his face like a gash. But what a price to pay for inspiration.

The Process Involves Différance

Derrida’s variety, by which the meaning of a word is endlessly deferred as it is further shaped by additional words, which add to and shift its meaning and are in turn shaped by the words that follow them, and on and on so that no definitive meaning is ever arrived at, ever determined, ever set.

Because most of the time I don’t know what I mean. Most of the time I’m following the path from one word to the next, waiting for the string to lead me to something. Sometimes it’s an actual point. Sometimes not. It doesn’t really matter either way. What matters to me is that in the process of combining words and following the shifts in meaning, the words begin to shimmer and vibrate. They move. They come alive.

It calls to mind old Bruce Lee movies. His style of kung fu, he said, was “the style of no style.” He studied all the styles and then let the situation determine which techniques he used. The important thing was to be fully present, adaptable and responsive, able to act in the most appropriate way. To let the circumstance guide the hand.

I don’t know enough about kung fu to know if this is why his movements were so beautiful, but when I watch him on screen I feel like I’m watching a dancer. He has his way of carrying his body, his own distinct walk, prowling and yet light on his feet. And then he moves so fast it’s hard to believe they didn’t speed up the film. But in fact they sometimes slowed the film down so the audience could see what he’d done. I take this all to mean something. I feel that these words have led me somewhere.

Linguine Carbonara Recipe

It seemed amiss to write a post about this dish but not include a recipe for anyone who felt inspired to try it. So here we are:

1 lb linguine

2–3 T olive oil

2–3 T butter

1/3 lb sliced bacon (or guanciale), cut crosswise into thin strips

3 cloves garlic, minced

2/3 c red wine (or an acidic, non-oaky white like pinot bianco)

2/3 t fresh-ground black pepper

3 eggs

1 c grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

1/2 t salt

3 T chopped fresh parsley (preferably Italian flat-leaf parsley)

In a small stainless-steel frying pan, heat the oil and butter over moderate heat. Add the bacon and cook until brown but not crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, wine, and pepper. Simmer until the wine is reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cheese, parsley, and salt.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the linguine until just done, about 12 minutes. Drain the pasta, add it to the egg-and-cheese mixture, and toss quickly. Pour the bacon mixture over the linguine. Add the parsley and toss just until mixed. Serve immediately with additional parmigiano.

(Note: t=teaspoon; T=tablespoon)

The Process Involves Linguine

Carbonara, for instance, is easy to prepare. This matters because when I’m writing I find it challenging to do anything that requires a lot of coordinating and decision-making. The words overtake my mind so completely that I’m better off doing something simple and meditative with my non-writing hours, something dull and mindless like scrubbing the pans or weeding the yard. This is fine by my husband, who would much rather cook than clean up the mess.

Carbonara is about as simple as I can get and still have a meal worth serving to others. The shopping is breathtakingly straightforward: bacon—or, if I’m lucky, the Italian bacon called guanciale. A good-sized hunk of well aged parmigiano reggiano. A fistful of fresh parsley. The rest is usually lying around the kitchen already: red wine, garlic, eggs, black pepper, and linguine or some other variety of pasta. As a habit I am always trying to match the perfect pasta shape with each of my favorite sauces (tip: carbonara + bucatini = love). But linguine is the default choice, the choice with which you can’t go wrong.

When I was a child, my father would order twenty-pound boxes of linguine from a specialty pasta maker in St. Louis, a place he learned of from his own father. He’d have them shipped up to our house in Anchorage five at a time and then store them in the large cool cabinets under the kitchen counter. A hundred pounds lasted about a year. The noodles were so long they looped back over themselves, forming loose hooks at the end so that I could hold them in one hand and pretend to walk as if with a cane. Sometimes when playing hide-and-seek I climbed in and perched atop the boxes in the dark. In my world, linguine is the bar against which all other noodles are measured.

It would be unthinkable to write—

and by that I mean write about the difficult, the uncertain things; the things that sting or swelter; the things so beautiful there is a kind of pain in the knowledge that not even memory preserves them completely—

without a bowl of linguine to comfort me occasionally at the end of the day.