The Lyric Body

on writing, aesthetics, anatomy & identity

Writing, Love and Wildfolk

Autumn in Los Angeles.

Autumn in Los Angeles.

It’s fall. We had a hellish heat wave here that all but obscured the early signs: the golden quality of late afternoon light, the days growing infinitesimally shorter. And then, yesterday, it broke. I woke up to an unfamiliar coolness under my feet, to clouds that didn’t break as the sun moved, to a gentle breeze with just a hint of chill wafting in through the open window and up against my skin. To my mind, there is nothing better than this. An autumn Saturday morning. A day that promises to grow chilly after dark.

All that heat, all that expansion leading up to this blessing of a weekend, made me crazy. But it also produced some new work and some fresh collaborations.

I kicked off a partnership with the lovely Taren Maroun at Wildfolk + Co., a beautiful lifestyle blog where you can find two new posts from me (and hopefully more to come) in the holistic-inspired Earth + Herb section dedicated to nourishing body and soul with healthy eats and uplifting destinations. Also, stunning styling & photography. It is such a treat to see my words partnered up with such well-curated imagery.

I’ve also got a new post up at The MFA Years: “MFA vs. LDR: Some Thoughts on the Long Distance Relationship.” Here’s an excerpt to give you an idea:

When I look to the year ahead, to my MFA plans and hoped-for acceptance into one of ten programs where I can dig in and focus on my writing, the long-distance factor weighs heavy on my mind. There is the part of me that is still afraid: to live apart, to be lonely, to put even something as strong as our half-dozen years of love and life building to the test. But there is also the part of me that can’t help but feel a thrill. I haven’t lived alone since my immediately post-college days, when I rented a big room with wood floors and bay windows in a Berkeley Victorian on College Avenue. I loved that room. I loved it’s simplicity, its malleability, its “mine-ness.” I hung a tapestry on the wall and used a futon for a bed. My desk was an old dining table, big and dark and sturdy. I had a vanity in one corner, a bookshelf along the inside wall, and a wide-open space in the center for my yoga mat, where I spent a good hour every day burning incense and listening to Ravi Shankar and taking my time because I could, because no one was waiting to share the space, to use the car, to go get dinner, to brush their teeth or fold their laundry.

I think about living apart and what I see is simplicity. A studio maybe, small and basic with just the things I need to live and work. A bed; a desk; a little kitchen; a floor space for my mat. I see this space and imagine my capacity to focus, to question, to read, to research and dig. To know myself again. Not to reinvent—and I want to make this clear. I love my partner. I love who I am when we’re together. I have no doubt that he has made me a better person—calmer, kinder, more thoughtful, more conscious, more aware, more nurturing—than I was before we met; that he has brought out a softness and a depth in me I didn’t know existed back in that Berkeley house all those years ago. I’m not seeking space in order to change. I’m seeking space in order to deepen; enrich; magnify; concentrate; elucidate what it is that I am, and want, and can and will write and express and why it matters.

 

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Women in Clothes

Me in a shirt that looks vintage, but isn't.

Me in a shirt that looks vintage, but isn’t.

I’m so excited about this new book, Women in Clothes. In an age where we bandy about the phrase “personal style” like nobody’s business, taking the “fashion” connotations out of this idea–and replacing them with real life women, real life stories, real life understanding of what a look, a shirt, a pair of boots, a tube of lipstick, can mean at any given point in time–well, it’s a step towards reclaiming the stories in our closets. Real stories. Just because they rest on a hangar doesn’t make these stories shallow. Clothes are something we give, share, pass down, don like a costume, shed like a skin. They can shape us if we let them, if we want them to. We can make them something different with a walk, a slouch, a skipped button.

Here’s to letting clothes sing. Objects and heirlooms along with the rest. Little libraries of our lives, filled with stories waiting to be worn.

 

 

 

Bar Napkins & Brevity

 

In which the Blog Tour continues, from Thaddeus Gunn to Dinty W. Moore of Brevity Literary Journal and, also, major CNF worshipfulness:

Brevity’s Writing Process Blog Tour (with Bar Napkins).

 

 

 

Self-Portrait

purse

Large bags yield loose ends. I carry a small one: Coach. Black, gold clasp, corners worn. $30 at La Lupe Vintage on University. “A steal,” my mom says. Besides my keys, there are only three things inside: iPhone, lipstick, wallet.

I prefer to travel light.

People notice the wallet. “That thing’s got a history,” they’ll say, nodding from behind the counter at People’s Organic Foods Market. “I’m sure,” I’ll reply, wishing I knew what it was. The wallet is leather, caramel brown, with red and yellow and blue embroidered binding and braided edges. Inside, the plastic sleeve covering my driver’ license is falling apart. I got the wallet at Kobe’s, the San Diego swap meet, for fifty cents off a jumble sale table. I thought it looked bohemian and cool, that it looked like “me,” not realizing how false my own sense of self would seem once people started asking about the wallet—where it came from, what it meant. It looks like the kind of thing one might pick up on an epic adventure—Peace Corps in Nicaragua, maybe, or a surf trip to Mexico. But I never did Peace Corps, and I don’t know how to surf. I just love trolling through Kobe’s with my boyfriend on cloudy Saturdays, picking through the dusty piles of other people’s goods, hunting for things that remind me of myself. The self I am, or maybe just the self I want to be.

For years, I couldn’t have imagined any of these selves owning an iPhone. None of them were slick or tech savvy or enticed by things like “apps” or “selfies.” The selves I knew were analog verging on Luddite. But they did have a collective weakness for pretty things.

Throughout my twenties, I owned a flip phone. Red and black. Motorola. Simple and functional. Then, two years ago, my dad got an upgrade and gave me his old iPhone 4. Even out of date, it was, in a word, sexy. Ubiquitous too, in a way that made my selves squirm with the fear of giving in, of joining. So I bought a phone case: olive ash burl, real hardwood, its rings a unique topography punctuated with dotted circles like breasts, like galaxies. The pattern is soothing; an antidote to Skittle-hued icons and slick plastic. Sitting at the café, I know I’m tapping away at the same screen as everybody else. But I always set the phone face down. This makes me feel better.

Both the phone and wallet stay in one pocket of my bag. In the other, I keep my lipstick. I own maybe half a dozen shades, but this is the only one I carry. The color is “Hope”: matte pink, somewhere between coral and mauve. It goes on easy and stays for hours. It doesn’t dry my lips or get sticky or catch stray hairs when the wind blows. It is called a “lip stain,” and smells like Play Dough. My lipstick is made from Amazonian clay and has no parabens, phthalates or sulfates. My lipstick is fucking gluten free.

I wear “Hope” for everything: work, a date, an afternoon of writing. I wear it even when I’m not leaving the house, even when I’m home alone making salad in the afternoon. It makes me feel “finished.” Like I have someplace to be. One tube costs $30. But for the perfect shade, it’s worth it.

Third Time Around

“This fall marks my third foray into MFA applications. By the time I submit the last batch of samples, transcripts, tears and hope, I’ll be thirty. I’d like to think there’s something auspicious about all these “3’s” — that they signify manifestation of dreams, maybe, or even good old-fashioned luck. But looking back, I’m mostly just grateful: for the false starts, trials, errors and confusions of the past two cycles that have landed me here, finally ready, finally clear on what I want to explore as a writer and how an MFA best fits into that dream.”

Read the rest of my introduction post as a contributing blogger over at The MFA Years…and for anyone who’s taking part in this crazy process, explore the site for great resources and a variety of voices getting down and dirty with the realities of MFA & applicant life.

Writing Process Blog Tour

From the cover of "Gray's Anatomy," 1974.

From the cover of “Gray’s Anatomy,” 1974.

The past few weeks have been unusually blessed. First, I got a delightful out-of-the-blue email from Mary-Kim Arnold, who I had the happy fortune to work with at last year’s Tin House Writer’s Workshop. This would have been a lovely surprise under any circumstances. As it was, she pretty much rocked my world by requesting my help in her latest literary coup, succeeding Roxane Gay as Essays Editor of The Rumpus. Not long after that, I heard from Mary-Kim again—this time with an invitation to take part in this thing, MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR. At the time, I didn’t have an active blog. This was about two weeks ago. I did, however, have the longstanding intention to START a blog—a place to house my ideas and snippets and research and observations towards this anatomical memoir project that I’ve been dancing around for the past year.

So, thanks to Mary-Kim, I am now a) an Assistant Essays Editor at the Rumpus; b) authoring this blog, The Lyric Body; and c) privileged to read, re-read and share MKA’s stunning work, which can be found in The Rumpus, The Pinch, Tin House, HTML Giant and elsewhere.

I’ve started to think of her as my literary fairy godmother.


 

MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR

1. What are you working on?

Mainly the so-called “anatomical memoir:” a sprawling, half-imagined container for all the essays I’ve been working on over the past year. Most of these are personal, with elements of memoir and research revolving around empathy, memory, anatomy, illness, aesthetics and identity. Oh, and my mother. (Just a few things, right? Way to narrow it down, I know.) I’ve got this scheme to use the human fetal development process as a structural device for the pieces, breaking the book into 9 sections that each bear a thematic focus to mirror which parts of the body are “getting made” from one month to the next.

Partially in order to flesh out these themes, and partially in an effort to get out of my apartment, meet other writers and explore some fresh material, I’ve been taking classes through WWLA (Writing Workshops Los Angeles). So far, it’s been an amazing and super productive experience—one that has me dipping a toe into the world of flash nonfiction, thanks to some great exercises and feedback from the group.

Finally, I’m coming back from a lengthy freelancing hiatus and ditching the bulk of my copywriting, editing and ghostwriting gigs for article pitches. It’s awesome and scary and totally overwhelming: few things give me a bigger thrill than sending off a pitch, or landing an assignment (or that moment right AFTER landing said assignment when I realize I know nothing and have so, so much research to do)—and then getting giddy because I love research, because digging for ideas beneath the surface is breathing past the ribs and down deep into the diaphragm, where the breath does work, where it expands and opens me up to possibility.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Who knows? I love how wide open the genre of creative nonfiction has become in recent years. But I do know this: the more I come to understand myself as a writer, the less I imagine in my work to be “experimental.” I have a thing for artists and revolutionaries—I always want to sidle up next to them, to surround myself with their energy. But my work is not rebellious. I would say it is, instead, an attempt at reconciliation: between the world of mind/body consciousness and the very humanist, empirical world of intimacy, of biology, of facts, of objects. Right now my primary goal is to unite a lyrical sensibility + holistic perspective + grounded, gritty details…to balance beauty with the will to edit myself, as Maggie Nelson once said, “into boldness.”

3. Why do you write what you do?

I’ve spent the last eight or nine years fascinated with (and exasperated by) the trick of balancing intellectual stimulus and physical health. So often in my life, it has been one or the other. Writing this struggle down on paper, trying to make sense of it, to use words as a means of knowing my body better, yields the closes thing to unity I’ve felt thus far. I know there is so much more to read and explore and delve into; but for now, my preoccupation is getting this balance thing, its mysteries, its questions, down on paper.

4. How does your writing process work?

Erratically, I’m afraid. Though lately, I’ve been much more consistent. I’ve surrounded my workspace with books and images exploring the body: “Gray’s Anatomy;” “The Body: Photographs of the Human Form;” “The Anatomy and Physiology Learning System.” I’m doing my best to write daily, even if that sometimes means writing every other day, or maybe cramming in a 1,000 word power session at the end of the week. WWLA keeps me accountable (we have weekly assignments and end up submitting between 25-35 pages of additional work in each class); so for that, as well as teachers like Chris Daley and Margaret Wappler, I’m eternally grateful. I write best in the morning, or on a deadline, or in the evening alone in my apartment with a Session IPA and an open window and some Cat Power or Beats Antique playing in the background (which may or may not be happening right now!). When all else fails, a long walk through the greener, shadier side streets of my Silver Lake neighborhood is the perfect cure for a foggy brain.


Now I pass this along to the next three.

I met Tonya Canada three years ago, also at Tin House, this time in a workshop led by Stephen Elliott. This woman is fierce. She loves sharks. She talks back. She holds her own against a bottle of cab. Best of all, she writes essays that are hilarious yet poignant, as eccentric and yet utterly human as her subjects, as sharp and fast paced and ridiculously smart as she is.

Last year’s workshop marked the advent of mid-week karaoke. At first, I was skeptical. There were white guys rapping badly, with long bouts of empty airspace in between. Then Thaddeus Gunn took the stage and rocked “La Bamba” like nobody’s business. I became an instant fan. Several days later, Gunn held me rapt again—only this time it was at the participant readings where he shared his flash essay “Slapstick,” a piece as crisp and devastating as “La Bamba” had been joyous. Read his fiction and nonfiction at Brevity and Smokelong, and keep an eye out for new writing up soon at Tin House.

Kim Young is a poet and a beautiful human who I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my latest creative nonfiction class through Writing Workshops Los Angeles. From day one, I was struck by her voice, her pacing, her gift for intimate detail and depth of inquiry. Kim’s books include Night Radio, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, and Divided Highway. She is the founding editor of the poetry journal Chaparall, and teaches as CSU Northridge.

Mother: #1

Me and my mother, circa 1985.

Me and my mother, circa 1985.

Today I took my mother to a surgery center in the City of Industry (barren mounds of dirt and construction detours dotting a landscape of strip malls, sprawling business parks, endless parking lots). The plan: a biopsy at the site of a previous carcinoma. Precautionary but stressful, still requiring anesthesia and IVs and scrubs and lots of release forms. Her appointment was scheduled for 9:30 AM.

Last night, we’d agreed to leave at 8:30 AM, super early, to make sure we beat traffic. The surgery center is located just off the notorious 60 freeway, about a half hour east of Los Angeles, where big rigs bottleneck daily and a fifteen minute drive can easily take an hour. But when I woke at 7:30, an hour early was no longer early enough.

“We may have to just get going,” she said, still dressed in her multicolored floral pajamas. She was outside watering her bamboo plants, bare feet on concrete.

“Mom. You said 8:30.” I had just sat down at the computer. Moments like this make me protective of my routine, of plans. “I get that you don’t want to be late, but I need a little time to get ready.”

Mom sucks in a breath of air and looks away from me. “I don’t care how early we are. I just want to get there.” She’s nervous.

“Ok. I’ll look up the traffic.”

Google says the drive will take 25 minutes. Mom calms down, takes a shower, checks her email. I do the same, but feel rushed. I think, not for the first time, on how attached I’ve become to my morning habits: sun salutations, hot water with lemon before breakfast, silence, time to wake up in my body. The luxury of that time. The resentment I feel when it is interrupted.

We compromise. We leave at 8:15. It takes about fifteen minutes to get there, and we are an hour early. Still, when we park and walk up to the building, to the door marked “198,” where the surgery center is supposed to be, there is a sign that says “This Is Not An Entrance.” My mother panics.

“Fuck. What do you they mean, ‘Not An Entrance?'”

“Mom, it’s fine. We’ll just go in the other way.” I start walking fast towards the main entrance, eager to fix it, to find the right door, to move my way through the tension I feel whenever my mother gets like this: reactive, agitated, easily distressed. A shot of tension stiffens my neck, and I instinctively scrunch my shoulders up towards my ears. We reach the main doors.

“I’m sure there’s a directory in here,” I say, reaching for the door handle. I give it a hard yank, but it’s a “Push,” not a “Pull.” “Shit.” I bounce backwards, double down, push harder. The door opens with a piercing digital alarm. Mom jumps.

“It’s fine,” I say again, hustling her forward.

We find Suite 198. The sign on the door says: “Not An Entrance.” We both stop in our tracks.

Mom looks frantically around the office building entryway. I scan the directory, pissed off at this place for its poor signage, its willfully confusing design. I’m pissed off at myself for failing to land on the right entrance the first time around so that Mom could stay calm; so that I could stay calm.

From behind us, a voice says, “Are you looking for suite 198?”

A middle-aged woman with long white hair in a ponytail is sitting on a bench behind us.

“You have to go outside and around,” she says with a smile. “I was just there. Now I’m waiting for the pharmacy to open.”

“Oh thank you, darlin’!” Mom collapses her small body into a kind of thoracic curtsey: her shoulders slump, her chest caves. She beams at the woman, who nods back. I smile, a tight smile.

“Come on, Mom.” I put my hand on her back and begin moving her towards the door. She takes a few steps, then stops.

“I wish you wouldn’t push me like that.”

I stop, exasperated, chastened. The latter takes over. I rest an open palm on her shoulder, rub gently against the soft fabric of her Vera Wang for Kohls t-shirt.

“I’m sorry. You’re right.” We’re still moving, but I’m walking slower now.

She nods. We make our way back to the other side of the building. The tension washes down my neck and shoulders. For the first time today, I realize I’m nervous, too.

 

The Body as Object

“This is how you began to understand your body as object. You saw yourself in other people’s faces. And although you stopped singing, your body sang on its own and you knew everyone around you could hear it. You couldn’t stop hearing it. You were nineteen years old.” 

From a haunting and marvelous and hard-to-read essay by Susannah Nevison up at the Rumpus.

"Paternalia." Rumpus original art by Erech Overaker.

“Paternalia.” Rumpus original art by Erech Overaker.

The body as object — one of the many and yet most common frames through which we view bodies, our own and others’. A body that is beautiful. Or unexpected. Or failing; that is burnt or broken or stuck somewhere, inside. Or perhaps a body that is whole when we are not and so we find some flaw, some tiny fissure or failing to ridicule.

Nevison writes about the body, about disease and wounds and healing and family, with a lyrical grace that still never shies away from the raw, the honest. Making beautiful words, even structures (I admire the use of the numbered sections in this essay), weaving three separate stories together, sharing brutal and tender details side by side (singing Salt-n-Pepa while washing pins in a wounded leg), never slipping into the melodramatic, the overwrought…it’s this kind of work I want in my head when I sit down to write.

Manifesto.

"Nude, Belgravia." Bill Brandt. 1951.

“Nude, Belgravia.” Bill Brandt. 1951.

I’m setting out to write about the body: its subtlety, grotesquery and power. About aesthetics: texture and style, the play of the light. About how these things bring me, and possibly even us, closer to finding an identity–or perhaps to relinquishing the very notion of “identity” all together.

Mostly, I write essays. On physicality and memory. On origins and insides. On the body’s rhythms, traumas and transcendent moments. Essays exploring my attachment to beauty, both within and upon and beyond my flesh–beauty in objects, spaces and things. I’ve found myself trying to write a piece about myself and ending up, again and again, with a piece about my mother. Or a piece about my legs, their whiteness; or my hair, its sheen, its eccentricities. I’ve found myself getting inspired by the contents of my body, and equally inspired by the contents of my handbag.

This is a place for proposing connections. Indulging desires. Exploring the insides of things.