Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Paris diary post-mortem 1: DONE

So much to catch up on. The diary died, maybe you noticed. After a three-week resurrection of the computer, it re-died. This morning I finished my book ("finished" is an absurd exaggeration). Lots of other stuff! Let me confine this diary entry to whatever it is that I did to my novel by taking it to the local Office Depot for printing and binding twenty minutes ago.

First of all I should say that, while this is a speculative judgment - I haven't read the book, personally - I can confidently proclaim it the third draft of a masterpiece. The only question is whether it's the third of three drafts, which should see the book published in 2010, or of nineteen, in which case I'll just combine the book party and my 80th birthday celebration (it's coming up!). Only time and, my railings against critical feedback notwithstanding, the opinion of one or more literary agents, editors, and other cruel readers will tell.

The third draft was written by printing out the morbidly obese second draft, opening up a new Word document, and composing the new draft entirely from scratch. The idea was that if, as Virginia Woolf observed regarding Orlando's struggle to write, the cardinal labor of composition is excision, it would be much easier to spend my hours making positive choices (
include this) rather than negative ones (delete this piece of shit scene that I frankly can't believe you had the unfathomable mediocrity to write in the first place).

As far as excision goes, the experiment worked. The second draft weighed in at 340,000 words, about three times longer than a debut novel is permitted to be, and the third draft is just over half that, about 177,000 words. In the revision of the third draft I'll cut another 77,000 words and Random House will have no choice but to shell out a million-dollar advance.

And that will be publishing industry highway robbery! The other night I was out with American book professionals / enthusiasts and we were talking about how badly most books end. Take Anna Karenina - please! I said matter-of-factly that my novel had a fabulous ending - I was going to write it that week - and was taken aback when everyone laughed. I am not being funny.
If a Tolstoy ending is Jack Benny, mine is Jascha Heifetz.

Conservative predictions: the novel will win prizes. It will be sold in supermarket display racks, airports, Costco. I don't want to sound grandiose but I seriously think they might sell it at Wal Mart. The Pope will issue a fatwah against me; Oprah will offer to be my bodyguard. It's that good! Or will be on the 19th draft. It has everything! Love, death, survival, survival guilt,
sex, gender euphoria, spectacle, violence, marijuana, compost. Miracles, resurrections, immolations, DEA helicopters. Literally tons of ganja. Candy-flipping, Janacek, Celexa, twins, Dilaudid, Christianity, black acid, paganism, BuSpar, Macon GA, Xanax, Beverly Hills, Sudafed, Boonville, crystal meth, Radical Faeries. It has not one but two languages of its own making, not one but two prophets for post-capitalist America. It has readability, charm, irresistibility. It's never maudlin, but you will cry; it's often cheap, and you will laugh. Michelle Obama will read passages aloud to Barack, but only after they've put the girls to bed. The Church will never recover.

It's an important book. I get these anxiety attacks about finishing, like what if I don't live that long? The other day I was walking in front of the Gare du Nord when a gaggle of French soldiers came out dressed in machine guns and extra rounds. I scurried away from them down the Rue de Dunkerque, thinking
I must avoid guns until after the novel is finished.

Because as sincere as I am in all this love for and pride in the novel, I am haunted by a few things. One is a quote I hope someone will help me source, in the comments, something along the lines of, "To love what one has written is to love it a little too much." Another is the 2nd draft. When I finished it after 7 weeks at the MacDowell Colony, in December 2006, I don't believe I proclaimed it a masterpiece, but I felt pretty good about it. Now the shame that burns my skin when I read the second draft curdles milk in the refrigerator on the other side of this huge studio. I hope to incinerate that draft it in the fire pit in the courtyard as part of James's going-away party Saturday, and meanwhile I found a nice use for selected pages when I finally got so annoyed by the mysterious inch-and-a-half holes drilled through the beams in my studio that I did this:

I'm still waiting for that advance, my laptop is still dead, and your contributions are still tax-deductible.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paris Day 35 - feedback lunch

Today I finally made it over to C.R.O.U.S. and collected my second of three bourse disbursements, after which I consulted my Paris Pratique, found a perfectly direct route to get me back across the river (in Paris, the way in is never the way out) and proceeded to ride my bicycle in a triangular loop describing the lower third of the 6th arrondissement, bringing me, twenty minutes later, exactly where I started at the Port Royal (this kind of thing never happens to me north of the river). That made me twenty minutes late to meet my inauguration buddy Irène at Jours de Fête back up in the 10th.

I have a swell time with Irène. She is patient with my French, which requires
patience in government surplus quantities, but her English is perfect so when push comes to shove I can make myself understood. We also have compatible musical tastes - when I walked into Jours de Fête, they were playing Komeda, the Swedish band I had recommended to her on our last date; she's now their biggest fan in France.

I was late also to our last meal at Jours de Fête, that time because I had to run back over the canal and up to the monastery to get the copy of my DVD I had promised her. Today she announced somewhat breathlessly that she and a friend had just watched the movie and she had so much to say about it.

As it happens, I love talking about
Apparition of the Eternal Church. In fact, I've done little else over the last year and a half and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. The distinction I failed to make in this instance is that whatever talking I was to do about my beloved movie was to follow a period of listening, and with the exception of hearing introductions to the film delivered by people who have just spent considerable sums to screen it at their institutions of art or higher learning, I have had comparatively little experience in the last two years with this kind of listening.

I didn't like it.

I blame myself! I went through this experience, writ larger, after screening the film on Halloween 2006 to my fellow residents at the MacDowell Colony. I was on my way down to the New York premiere at St. Bart's, and I wanted to be ready for anything the New York audience threw at me in Q&A, so I told my MacDowell colleagues to really give me the business after the show. And they did! There were one or two nice comments - Anthony Alofsin said it was the most psychedelic thing he'd seen in twenty years - but for fifteen of the worst minutes of my life as a filmmaker I faced a firing squad of dismissive, often condescending, ringing denunciations of the work. Then I called a friend at home to cry on his shoulder and he said he pretty much agreed with them.

I'm happy to say that the one thing I changed between Halloween and the New York premiere Nov. 9th was not one of the things the firing squad or the friend at home had objected to. The objections concerned one leg of the three that hold the movie up, and after watching everyone kick it and douse it with gasoline and set it on fire, I decided it was
indispensable for reasons both structural and aesthetic and that people who didn't like it could go to hell make their own experimental documentaries.

But more importantly, I made a decision after that scariest of Halloweens to never again solicit - or offer - feedback on finished work. I did the first, central interview for Apparition, with Albert Fuller, in March 2003. The world premiere was in the fall of 2005, and after substantial revisions it screened at half a dozen film festivals in 2006. By Halloween of that year the film was finished! It made no sense for me to start entertaining fundamental objections to the idea or the execution or to any of it. If what I really wanted was for everyone to fawn over the film and pat me on the back on my way to the New York show, then I got what I deserved. But I also learned the lesson, and started to shut down critical conversations about the film the moment they began.

"The idea you had, it's such a good one," said Irène. "But...may I be honest?"

That was my cue, and I missed it. I'm out of practice! It's been well over a year since anyone tried to engage me in this kind of a conversation, and I just forgot what a toxic experience it is for me. It is a truly hopeless and useless situation for the creator of finished work. If you understand the objection and have an answer to it, as I did today, you come off sounding defensive (guilty), thin-skinned (guilty) and unappreciative of your critic's honesty and insight (three strikes!). And what is the other option, silence?

I've had this conversation before. Someone sees Apparition, and what it triggers for them (beyond its nonprofessional sound and picture, which Irène felt compelled to mention) is what is missing. In Irène's case, this was a section getting away from everyone's subjective experience of the music and telling us with more authority and analytical precision what the music is and how it works and why it's important and when Messiaen wrote it and who he was, etc. In other words, educational television.

I am not knocking educational television. I love educational television! The idea of sitting in a room with Ken Burns's Jazz or Ric Burns's New York for a long weekend and doing nothing but eating and sleeping and watching educational television - it's Puerto Vallara,
Vegas and Valhalla all rolled into one. But what am I supposed to say to someone who watches Apparition of the Eternal Church and wishes it were PBS?

Today's feedback lunch reminded me of a well intentioned and lengthy email I got from a film industry professional in LA back in 2005, before the movie was finished but well after I had already decided that I was not making educational television. Here are some representative excerpts:
We are seeing a lot of faces here. When you watch a documentary (which is what this is. You are essentially documenting people's reaction to this piece.) they often tell you about who is speaking when they first appear.

I might do something like: After Albert appears for the first time and puts on the headphones and the first notes hit him. cut (don't fade, fade implies a transition between time or location) so CUT to black with this card.

Text: Albert Fuller has taught music at Jilliard (or some other idea of who he is) Classically trained. blah blah blah.

cut back to Albert listening and talking - What is this?

cut back to black cardtext: Albert is the first person to perform this piece in the US... 30 years ago. He has not played it since.


The black guy the appears frequently. Who is he. Why are did you pick him. What sort of appreciation of music does he have?

The drag queen card might say. So and So has been doing Drag for 12 years professionally. Her favorite artists are Moby and Cher.


In addition: You might find some stills of the original church organ this was performed on. Or Stained glass from the cathedral that the son was talking about having his father take him into. Give us some visuals when you can. I enjoyed watching the talking faces. But after about 15 minutes, a break to some other visual would be engaging. You might also try going to cathedrals in SF and just standing in the middle/back and panning your camera up.
Let me cut to something
less depressing. On Day 9 here I found a scrap of paper on which I had written the holy words of Paul Chan, quoted in The New Yorker:
I realized that what I had to do was impoverish the image. I had to give up all the things that I thought were my strengths – the vibrant color, the brutal clarity of line…the sort of depth I got by almost putting the foreground and the background together. If you’re willing to impoverish, you can go on to something else.

Can you free it from what it is, to become what it can be?

My mind was cleared for something else to happen, which I think is what art does. If you do it right, that’s what happens.
I'm mixing up three different issues now - one is the uselessness, to the artist, of criticizing finished work. Another is objecting to experiments because they don't - which they don't by definition - conform to clichés (introductions, stained glass). A third, related idea is of impoverishing the work of what comes immediately, most easily (experts, explanation, authority) in order to make room for the phantasmagoria, the riot, Squeaky Blonde. Nobody understood this better than Messiaen.

I have become long-winded and cranky on top of being constitutionally defensive and thin-skinned. And I still have plates and platters left to serve about feedback! But I'm not going to call this "feedback lunch Part I" - I'll just save the rest of it for "feedback dinner" or, possibly worse, "feedback cocktails." Today Irène explained why my Paris hangovers are so brutal - it's all the tannins in these cheap ass French table wines.

A blog is never finished, so your feedback is always welcome. So are your tax-deductible contributions.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Paris - Day 34 - caption catch-up

Email showed up from monastery admin a couple of days ago warning us to have our windows shut during the upcoming storm. I never look at a weather report - I like being surprised. So instead, I was surprised by the email, and excited; not every storm merits a warning. This one was OK - mostly wind, a fair amount of rain, some hail. It seemed to have passed yesterday at half past noon when I got on my bike to head for C.R.O.U.S. for my second stipend disbursement, but it had not, and I wasn't to the river before I was couldn't ride anymore, mostly because of how hard I was laughing at how miserable I was. So I bailed on C.R.O.U.S., locked up my bike in the Beaubourg, and headed to l'Imprevu, which was closed as usual, and then to the Café Beaubourg, where I got the daytime version of the Pompidou Center seen through electric-lit plastic weather sheeting -

Sunday was a work day but I got out of the monastery in the afternoon for a bike ride and a couple of hours of writing in a cafe out in the 20th, five or six blocks northeast of Père Lachaise. Cute, neighborhoody, with one or two pretty new buildings:

I got there via the long hill up Menilmontant -

and found a few other murals along the way -

When I got home I heard a big ruckus outside and saw hundreds, maybe a thousand people rollerskating down Rue du Faubourg-St. Martin, a good five-minute-long procession, followed by a police escort -

Saturday, my day off, I went to the movies, hoping to catch up with Marc/Matt but our text exchange flickered out. I saw the film I had become very excited about after running into my colleague here, a Chinese woman, also a filmmaker-slash-novelist, who invited me to join her to see the new David Lynch movie, Benjamin Button. And I believed her! "What," James said, "have you been living in a monastery?" I almost want to recommend going into the film under the same misapprehension, although ultimately the chasm between David Lynch and David Fincher does not flatter the film. Still, I liked it and cried twice, first when the dog was led away from his master's funeral, and then at the end, like a baby.

On my walk home I took pictures, this one with virtually no light:

- and this one of the ubiquitous Smart Car, times two:

Last week San Francisco expat Joel had me to dinner and the two of us spent hours drinking wine and yammering on about life here -

This is Joel's view of the Marais, right smack in the middle of the Jewish section:

And these, my favorite mannequins in Paris, some of them starting to put on a few threads as sale season winds down and spring approaches:

Today the idea was to make another attempt on C.R.O.U.S., but in the second week of the month it is closed the third day of the week (perhaps you've heard about the French bureaucracy, about which I have less right than anyone on earth to complain, because it is both feeding and housing me). I worked in the studio all day, which reminds me that my week away from the blog saw an important milestone - I finished Part 2 (of 4) of the third draft! This is both more and less than it sounds - less because I came here with most of the Part 2 third draft already written, more because it includes some now promising scenes that had completely stymied me in prior drafts, and because the first month of work included all that outlining and organization and synthesis. So writing through to the end of Part 2 was little more than a week's work. Now I'm on to Part 3, and it's coming out fairly fluently but perhaps too much so; 7200 words in, I'm just clearing my throat. It beats writer's block.

After an instructive but otherwise unsuccessful shoot for La Création du Monde, I left the studio for a ride down to the little cafe in the Tuileries, but their espresso machine was broken so I went up to the Café Marly in the Louvre. It's a little bit hard for me to believe they let me sit in that room for 90 minutes for the price of an espresso.

I write for love, but I also sing for my supper.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Paris Day 28 - fuck la crise

I spent much of Thursday worrying about money. First I realized, at five after one, that C.R.O.U.S. closes at one so I can't collect the month's stipend until the middle of next week. I worried about this senselessly for five minutes before reminding myself that my bank card works in Paris and there is still some money, however little, left in my account. Then I worried about how little there is, how little time remains for me to finish this novel, how little the chance of selling it, of making a living as an artist, of making a living as anything else, thanks to la crise, and so I worried about la crise, on and off throughout the day, despite the fact that it was a day in Paris, the second in a month that started off with a rainbow (above) and the sun went down with this sunset as seen here near the Hôtel de Ville -

And that's how the day went, alternating beauty and la crise, including possibly the best contribution yet to La Création du Monde, and a really nice talk on Skype with James and the doggy -

- and a kick-ass writing session at the Café Beaubourg, where I think I got my money's worth out of an eight-dollar cafe au lait and also this vision of the Pompidou Center -

- as seen through plastic patio sheeting. Two strange episodes in the day briefly took my mind off la crise - the first, while I was shooting Création video, a serious fight that broke out on the corner of the Rue Faubourg St. Martin and Rue des Récollets, kids, teenagers, two of them really going at each other for five or ten minutes before the cops came in their wailing van, which blocked Rue des Récollets while the cops jumped out of the vehicle and the kids and their spectators scattered, all of which provided the end of my Création scene with a perfectly timed siren. And the second, also requiring emergency services, after leaving the Cafe Beaubourg I walked toward psychotic shouting, and found two rather presentable looking young Frenchmen, a man and a woman, fussing over a guy, my age, who was railing and hollering and doubling over, possibly speaking in tongues but most of it was more inarticulate than that, just animal growls and hollering, and I couldn't stop watching this because it bore such a close resemblance to a scene from one of my more spectacular monastery nightmares, the one in which I had descended into hell but it was just a busy street in Paris populated by throngs of guys just like this one raving and clawing at me, making me one of them. As the EMTs restrained him and loaded him into the van I thought about the guy I flew over with, part of the way, escorted off the plane by his armpits.

Still, despite Paris, rainbow and sunset, accomplishment and violence, la crise came back, tinnitus returning with silence. Still I asked, what am I doing? What happens after this? Who do I think I'm kidding? Who will read or buy? What will we eat? Should I sell the violin? What will become of us? Paris answered:

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Paris Day 26 - snowed in

I've had terrible nightmares here at the monastery, something I first attributed to the population of ghosts hanging out here following the building's stints as hospital for incurables, then for the wounded of two world wars and France's own national nightmare in Algeria. But for the most part, the dreams have been benign since I started wearing earplugs at night. My theory now is that I was waking up thinking someone was in the room about to kill me because when my neighbors walk around their studio - something they do compulsively - the floors creak in such a way that it sounds like they are, in fact, creeping up on the bed, hatchet in hand. To wake up of my own accord in a virtual sound vacuum is to wake up in celestial peace, by comparison, and yesterday the effect was enhanced by a special quality of light coming in through the west windows, reflected off overcast skies and snow falling through the air and collecting in courtyards, on cars and on rooftops.

Parisians have told me repeatedly what a rare thing it was to see snow on the ground on my arrival nearly a month ago, and I believe them, so what I really wanted to do with yesterday's snowy morning was get on my bike and take pictures of white-dusted Paris. But the challenge of being at an artist residency in the center of Paris rather than, say, in the woods of New Hampshire or the wilds of Wyoming, is resisting just such a siren call and so that's what I did, I contented myself with taking a few pictures from the window and then I sat down and opened the novel and stared at the blank screen until beads of blood formed on my forehead - just as I did the other night after walking around the Marais and seeing that outdoor cafe table full of hot sparkly French kids, two of whom were making out across the table (it seems to be a favorite pastime for the gays of Paris), just as Sunday, approaching the Beaubourg, I resisted the 19th century French harmonies (Duruflé?) luring me into the St. Merri Church, just as now I feel like it's time to start bringing this diary entry to a close so I can get back to the Internet-free desk, the No Talent Show, the beads of blood.

The work these days is harder and yet the time goes faster, much faster, and my endurance is about twice what it was when I was working on the notes and outline. Before, 90 minutes was a good max. This morning I went from nine to noon without noticing the time, and yesterday, in the afternoon rain that erased the snow, I sat at that cafe on the west side of Gare de l'Est, "Au Train de Vie" (a suspected pun I haven't quite gotten a handle on despite having possession of Martin's Robert-Collins CD with a page of entries for
"train" expressions) where everything is salvaged from old train cars, including the most comfortable imaginable cafe seating, inside and out:

To get to the cafe, you climb these stairs -

...and you have this view southeast, toward the monastery (hidden by the Gare de l'Est facade):

Tomorrow: Death to Frankie Goes to Hollywood; the bedazzled sledgehammer.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Paris Day 25 - into the wood

self-portrait with Tintoretto and John Ashbery

Paris penalizes "non-cultural" retail business that open their doors on Sundays so you can't do anything in Paris on the Christian sabbath except walk around and buy food. When it comes to enforcing downtime, the French are as bad as the Jews; we godless American workaholics are secretly grateful but we find a way to work anyway. Sunday is also the day the cleaning lady does the third floor of my wing of the monastery so I had to work remotely, and I had one other errand, which was to see if my bicycle was still where I'd locked it at Les Halles when I met Matt for the Malkovich "film". It was, and so I thanked my trusty post-Soviet bike lock for holding fast, or at least for bringing me good luck.

I had a terrible time finding a place to work. L'Imprevu, the coziest cafe I know in Paris or anywhere else, was closed. Cafe Beaubourg seemed too busy and stylish for me to unselfconciously spread out all my papers and stare off into space over them. Le Petit Marcel likewise, though I'm glad I stopped by because just in front I ran into my Iranian friend from the monastery and nothing makes you feel at home in a city more than chance meetings. I was on the verge of giving up and trying to find a place to work closer to home when I found Cafe Clovis, right across from Les Halles on the Rue Berger, where I had the whole upper floor to myself (see pic above).

After a day that started with early afternoon whiskey and proceeded chez Matt, Browning and Livingston through more whiskey, red wine and white port, I woke up yesterday with what the French call wood-face (gueule de bois) - a hangover. An hour after sitting down at the Cafe Clovis I had milled from the wood of my brain five joyless sentences describing a scene based on the Faerie Gathering open-mic ritual known as the No Talent Show. I felt I was doing justice to the event in every respect except humor, fun and imagination. I wrote my mother a letter and biked, numb-fingered, back to the monastery where I started the scene over and finished my writing day with a whole paragraph to show for it.

As predicted, this writing thing is turning out to be harder than that organizational and brainstorming exercise that had me in such fits of creative bliss the first three weeks here. I choose to blame it on the season. At Yale we had a winter ritual called Feb Club - a party was supposed to be held, somewhere on campus, every night of the month. I'm not proposing this as a solution - on the contrary - I'm just using the memory of Feb Club to remind myself that this is the winter of winter, that there's a reason it's the shortest month, and that I must be prepared for the next three or four weeks to be ugly, uglier than Les Halles, uglier, even, than a Franco-Hollywood essay on mortality. Midmonth my survival will be rewarded - my noisy next-door neighbors depart. But between now and then so many sentences and scenes remain to be extracted from my imaginative woods, steep woods, no chainsaws or helicopters or tractors, just the hand-saws and chains of outline, notes and second draft, and brute force.

An artist colony rejection came yesterday, somewhere I'd sent a novel excerpt. At this point I need another residency like I need another night of drinking and screwing around with a French Anglophile - too much of a good thing. But I'm reminded that for all the recognition the film has earned, the novel has failed to clear a series of comparatively low professional hurdles. The best it has done is won me half a residency - at Jentel, where I applied and was accepted for both film and fiction - and a trio of residency waiting lists. The rejections I've lost count of.

Nobody reading this should be concerned about my becoming discouraged. It is actually impossible to discourage me. I'm 38 years old, I've been earning rejection letters steadily for three quarters of that time and my keenest professional regret is that I didn't save every single last one of them - because I would have binders full of them, boxes and basements full of them, forests' worth; I could build a house out of my rejection letters and burn it down and have enough ash to wrap the hard core of my artistic self-esteem many times over. Apparition of the Eternal Church, festooned with laurels, was turned down by more than 70 film festivals. I don't know how this story ends, but I know how it can end. Albert Fuller, lecturing me on discouragement, resorted as he did so often to Latin - he forbade me to lose heart. I have not lost heart! I am just in the woods, and it is winter.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Paris Days 22 and 23 - my life in captions

After my first day of actual writing, too tired to string two sentences together, I glue them together with pictures.

Day before yesterday I got my busted bike back from 18 Vélo Vintage, 58 Rue du Ruisseau in Montmartre.

Paris to Sarko: Up yours! Yesterday (Thursday) the entire Bastille and every thoroughfare leading in and out was jammed. You couldn't move, the smell of cooking meat was everywhere - it was like Folsom St. Fair but in winter and with no sex. I lasted 15 minutes.

I get a little shiver of frisson when I decipher a French pun. Everywhere people sported signs that read "REVE GENERAL," playing on the rhyme between "reve" (dream) and "grève" (strike).

After the strike demo I met inauguration buddy Irène for dinner at Jours de Fête, 72 Quai de Jemmapes, right across the canal from me. Her buddies run the joint - a couple, she English, he French; conversation was in French about a quarter of the night and I limped along admirably. Food was first-rate - Irène and I both cleaned our confit duck to the bone.

The view northeast back on my side of the canal.

Twink & Tinkerbell in the Marais.

Expectations? What expectations? The other day, I bought five avocados for three euros - that's better than Trader Joe's - from a vendor in the 17th, near where I met the judge for a conversation date. When the grocer learned I was from the US, and that we shared opinions of the current and former president, he slipped a handful of clementines into my bag.

Really fun errand at Messiaen's church today - I have more fun in church than any atheist I've ever met except Albert Fuller and that's a special case. The 3PM light through the stained glass did this to the stone.

Walking through the Beaubourg I picked up this earworm and for once got Messiaen out of my head:

"If you try to knock me you'll get mocked
I'll stir fry you in my wok
Your knees'll start shaking and your fingers pop
Like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock"

I come from San Francisco, I live in a Franciscan monastery, and here I am hanging out with St. Francis at the sacristy of La Trinité - for 60 years the musical and spiritual home of St. François d'Assise composer-librettist Messiaen.

Now that I'm all warmed up from writing captions I feel like I could add something more substantial before my forehead hits the keyboard. I found a super extra darling cafe by the Beaubourg, certainly famous as it's that cute and right in the middle of things and has been there, according to what's painted on the mirror, since 1892 - Le Petit Marcel. I paid an outrageous sum for a cafe au lait and then got my money's worth out of it with my first 90 minutes' work using the newly printed (merci EL!) outline, notes and 2nd draft. I began and finished a scene the outline told me I was supposed to write, using notes that told me what was supposed to go in it; I took the results home and spent another 90 minutes entering it into the third draft on the computer. When I was scribbling the scene down at the cafe it seemed stillborn, but entering it into the 3rd draft it showed signs of life. Re-reading it now I'm not entirely convinced but I'm encouraged nonetheless and really happy to have gotten the lats three weeks of admin and planning and printing and the now, today, the first writing out of the way. Tomorrow's post-gay agenda: brunch, three parties, a tattered 19th century Russian novel, and a letter to my mom.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Paris Day 21 - just not yet

From the Villa St. Martin across the street I mooch some green neon.

Virginia Woolf enjoyed making fun of Orlando not so much as a 400-year-old, perennially adolescent, egotistical hot tranny mess, but as a writer. Specifically, in words I'll remember when the Alzheimer's sends me to my non-driver's California ID when I'm asked for my name, she loved giving him/her shit for his/her struggles with "the cardinal labor of composition, which is excision." Orlando's poem only grew, and was never finished.

I am that rare individual, the happy writer, because I am doing very little excision these days. I'm mostly adding. The outline is now twenty pages; the notes are nearly 100. Because time is making its way through the hourglass of this residency with the force of a sandblaster, I have set myself some deadlines to start the much more difficult work of committing new sentences to the third draft, and then the principal labor, which is ripping them out. Today and tomorrow are my last days to go over the outline and the notes, trimming, expanding and organizing according to chronology and theme; Saturday I have social plans pretty much all day and it's my 4-days-deferred day off, but I will do one chore - print the notes, the outline and the relevant sections of the second draft (about 2/3 of it). The following day, Feb. 1, I will sit with my laptop in front of these three piles of paper and my task will actually be very simple: to make them disappear.

As the fourth week of my time here approaches, my discipline is slipping. I began with such beautiful rules - no reading, Net surfing or even thinking allowed during meals - just stare out the window and eat. No work allowed for more than 6 days in a row. Limit the writing to 90-minute sets - stay fresh. Yesterday I gobbled my dinner with three chat windows open, I completed my 8th consecutive day of work, and I looked up from the morning session to realize that two and a half hours had gone by. I'm sure I'll jinx myself by writing this and I'm sure I'll deserve the punishment, but I am just riveted by this process and by the ease with which it's unfolding. I've gotten a lot of shit from trusted mentors who have looked at my sprawling and promiscuous creative life of film, fiction, nonfiction and music, my overloaded class schedule, and said honey it's all very amusing but if you're going to have a career one of these days you're going to have to pick one of these things and focus on it. And I've always looked at their stellar exemplary careers and thought yes, that is right, I must do it, it is the principal labor of building my career, and I will do it, one of these days, after the film is through, after the novel - God make me focus, just not yet. The last three weeks, returning to the novel after it has sat in a cool cave while the film took over my life, I am reaping rewards for my procrastination, rewards I wouldn't even have known to want or ask for. Questions arise faster than I can write them down, multiple answers are suggesting themselves as I type the questions - and even as I write down the alternatives, the best way forward becomes apparent. The contrast between this voluptuous spring of ideas and the cracked earth that grudgingly yielded the first two and a half drafts of this novel shocks me. It makes me think I could never produce a novel in fewer than six years and two or three major creative distractions. It inflates my awe of the book-of-the-year club (Updike, Chabon, Oates). Perhaps if you do this enough, your product cures in weeks rather than months and years.

Metaphors compete for Feb. 1. It's either graduating from school and having to make a career, getting married after years of whoring around, or raising a 999-plant pot farm out of the earth and, what? Cutting it all down, trimming and curing it? Or smoking it all at once?

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paris Day 20 - John Updike

It was turning into another one of those never-set-foot-out-of-the-monastery days so I performed an intervention and took a walk down my street. I didn't realize it had its very own Arc de Triomphe (the Porte St. Martin) or that it leads straight to the Beaubourg but both of those things are true. All the Parisian stores have sales right now, and, in a deft representation of what I can afford to buy even during sale season, all the mannequins are stripped naked. The dirtiest thing I have seen so far in Paris is the storefront pictured above with the one clothed male model - so very L'Histoire d'O.

I also passed this theater where Grease is playing. Wouldn't it be delish to see Grease in Paris, in French? Unfortunately, in addition to being short on euros and hours, I don't have any marijuana, so I'm going to skip it. Those of you in the Bay Area should check out the sing-along Grease that Peaches Christ and Heklina are doing at the Bridge Theater Valentine's Day. I wish I could be there but I have a hot date that night in Paris with my partner of six and a half years (no not James, unfortunately - the novel).

I haven't had writer's block since getting to Paris but I've now spent an hour avoiding saying something about the death of John Updike. I haven't read a lot of his novels but what I've read, the Rabbit tetralogy, I've read many times, which means I've turned several thousand pages of Updike. I have no way of knowing how much of an influence he was on me, though I often think Rabbit taught me what little I know about how to write. The one thing he wrote that really pissed me off - his notorious review of Andrew Hollinghurst's novel The Spell that managed to dismiss the whole enterprise of gay fiction -
Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish estimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient sacralized structures of the family.
- set me spluttering with pre-post-gay outrage for months before it set the course of my fiction efforts from then on, from my abandoned novel The Breeders to the present novel with its profusion of pregnancy.

Even at his most lyrical, Updike wielded authority in every sentence of those four monumental books - to say he wrote like God is not as figurative as it sounds. Four passages come to mind tonight - random memories from books I haven't looked at in many years, but each characterized by a command of the kinetic so uncanny it makes
Updike's death hard to believe: his videorealistic description of the pinball game, Nelson smashing up the cars in the lot, Rabbit at Rest's terrifying recapitulation, out on the Sunfish, of the tetralogy's formative trauma.

The fourth passage, which opens Rabbit Redux, I read over and over again when I first encountered it, and was happy to find online: summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. The city, attempting to revive its dying downtown, has torn away blocks of buildings to create parking lots, so that a desolate openness, weedy and rubbled, spills through the once-packed streets, exposing church facades never seen from a distance and generating new perspectives of rear entryways and half-alleys, and intensifying the cruel breadth of the light.
When people complain about Updike, specifically about the Rabbit novels, I think they're complaining about the unyielding quality of that light. Nothing got past it, because nothing got past him, and that is why John Updike wrote like God.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Paris Days 18 and 19 - pseudoflaneur

I've always understood the flaneur to be the guy who has time to just amble around town, checking things out, seeing if life might happen to him on his rounds, no big deal if it doesn't. My American friend Joel here in Paris has that written on his card - I almost wrote business card but a flaneur with a business card is oxymoronic (and there's the difference between here and home in a nutshell - the French word for business card is
carte de visite). The online dictionaries give other definitions for flaneur: an aimless idler; a loafer, according to; an aimless and usually self-centered and superficial person, according to the Word Tutor on the same site (take that, Joel). According to Edmund White, whose book by that name I haven't read, "a flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles (ambles!) through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic." Or he might just be looking for something to blog about.

My first stop on today's afternoon rounds was the Church of the Trinity, where Messiaen was the organist for six decades. I have an idea for a project there and went to see if I could bounce it off someone. On the walk over, I alternated between getting carried away by the second and third of the Vingt Regards, and suppressing a looming panic attack - the movie's a little racy here and there and I have this persistent paranoia that someone in Messiaen-land is going to clock me when we're introduced. The woman at the office showed neither any indication she'd ever heard of the film or me, nor any inclination to violence, and pressed a brochure into my hand with generic contact information. I sat at the nearly deserted cafe across the street, imagining that Messiaen and his wife must have been regulars, and wrote Juliette a letter almost entirely in French - who knows what it says. On my way out of the neighborhood I climbed a pole and posed with the street sign, above.

Flaneurs who don't know the history of the place they're ambling through are condemned to keep finding things that remind them of friends. Has Milton scholar and Apparition of the Eternal Church star John Rogers walked the length of Milton Street, as I did today?

When I encountered it, Rue Milton was overrun with elementary schoolchildren just getting out of class:

I looked for one of those historical markers, wondering if Milton had lived there or otherwise earned the naming rights locally - did he flee to Paris after the regicide? - but when I found history on the wall it was of a more recent vintage:




And then, after standing in front of that plaque along with a dozen mothers who were waiting for their children to come running through the front doors, I continued on my walk, stopping in at a little Armenian grocery where half the items were named for my friend Artashes:

I bought Artashes eggplant spread and fig jam.

Today's diary entry is supposed to account for yesterday as well as today but yesterday was one of those days I spent the last diary entry worrying about - nothing happened. Back in San Francisco, Tony and Kristen had a baby, but here there was less going on. I woke up, I wrote, I drank my freeze-dried coffee crystals, I wrote some more, I prepared food and cleaned up after myself, I contributed to
La Creation du Monde, I wrote, I moved the furniture around, I ate, I posted a diary entry, I passed out. I had made a resolution not to spend any money all day, and as a result didn't once set foot off the monastery. You could even say the day was monastic.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paris Day 17 - bordel

One of the hardest things for a writer to get his mind around is the conflict, inherent in his calling, between discipline and experience. To write requires solitude and sobriety, a concentrated and sloe-eyed confrontation with the self and the world: picture Emily Dickinson, alone, laboriously pulling the universe through her ink well. For most of us, though, having something to write about requires society, recklessness, wool-gathering, cultivation of chaos, ruination of sobriety, screwing and screwing around, and the messier the better - what might be referred to around these parts as a bordel of a life. For the diary writer (and it's dawned on me in the last few days that this is not a blog, but something closer to a diary), the need for experience is even more acute, and having ventured, in an kind of Ambien sleepwalking rampage, out onto this limb of daily writing, I find myself living in fear that one of these days in Paris absolutely nothing is going to happen to me worth writing about and that limb will dry up and crack with my next step forward. In the 16 days of this diary I've had rainbows and I've had dog shit, but how long can that kind of luck last? This is how I justified going out last night.

It was another conversation date with Marc - the 23-year-old much better looking younger brother of Ryan Philippe. This time the setting was some kind of art opening at the Palais de Tokyo. I used to pass it all the time when I stayed with friends who had a place in Passy, and the place had been on my mind recently after another friend forwarded this choice piece of pornography in Butt Magazine. Late to meet Mark, I found, on the grand staircase facing the Seine, a pack of feral potsmoking fire dancers:

Marc liked the first one as an homage to Coco Chanel

The art opening itself was not what either of us was expecting, which might have something to do with the fact that we didn't read the invitation very carefully. It took place in an auditorium where chairs were set up in front of a big screen, but when the lights dimmed and the show started, there was nothing to watch. It was a pre-hearing of a radio broadcast, a collage of interviews and sound clips from Corsica, mostly in French but with smatterings of Spanish and Italian, English and German - my native tongue and all the ones I blew off in school. I had a hard time concentrating - I found the rapid-fire Italian much easier to understand than most of the French - and when I closed my eyes and tried to focus I kept drifting back to problems in the novel, ideas for La Création du Monde. When Marc made some impatient noises I suggested we blow the joint and get dinner.

Dinner wound up being
take-our Chinese back at his place on the other side of the river, and when our food was eaten and our after-dinner drinks drained, I said I needed to get back to the monastery as I hadn't finished my writing for the day. So I got up and gathered my things and went to the door, where we exchanged our first kiss on the lips - chaste and brief. And that would have been it if I hadn't turned back around to say something, and the opportunity presented itself, in that moment of leaving behind Ryan Philippe's much better looking younger brother, to kiss him again, and a few minutes later his cat was dodging us as we tumbled, stark naked, to his bed.

Look, I tried to leave. I could hear my novel calling to me from across Paris, demanding its promised share of the day. Three or four times I said I have to go, and each time he said just five more minutes. I kept feeding those minutes into the machine, but of course it was never satisfied. If both my desire to leave and Marc had been a little stronger, it might have turned into a dicey situation - I guess I've forgotten what 23-year-old male sexual need is like but at one point I was surprised to find myself prevented by a scissor lock of his legs from getting out of bed and at another he actually threw me back onto the mattress. Poor cat! Perhaps he's used to it.

Yesterday, at the used-bike shop in Montmartre, I struck up a conversation with an American girl who's in Paris for several months and we commiserated on the difficulty of learning French here. No wonder Americans are monolingual - geopolitically the empire may be crumbling but linguistically it seems to have a couple of centurions standing watch over every street corner on Earth. Even the other day, studying French in that little cafe on Libya Street, surrounded by locals, in walked Steve Perry on the radio with open arms. I know it's churlish and implausible to complain about finding myself in bed with an absurdly good looking young Parisian with a fiery sex drive, the strength of which at 38 I retain but a dim and distant memory, but the two of us can't speak French for more than three and a half minutes before giving up and switching to English, where we're apparently both more at home. As I wrote a few days ago when introducing Marc, James specifically said I should find a Parisian boyfriend in order to learn French. And he's right! I'm here to finish a draft of the novel, make a film, and learn the language, so what am I doing in bed with a boy who might as well be from Cleveland? When I finally succeeded in leaving Marc's apartment I felt like once again Steve Perry had waltzed in on the middle of my French studies. Well, there's always the judge, who keeps me honest with the French conversation, but he canceled today's tete-a-tete because of illness. At least I learned one word last night - I now know how to say thigh - and thanks to the context I'll probably remember it. Of course there's that other thing I'm doing here in Paris, which is keeping this diary, and as you can see my bordel of a date with Marc got me through one more day of that.

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