Monday, February 1, 2010

Flossie Lewis in print!

Susan Sanford's illustration for Flossie Lewis's essay in The East Bay Monthly

For those of us who studied English with Flossie Lewis as high school or college students in the Bay Area, and who read her published short fiction (in Commentary among other places) and writing how-to book (Getting Engaged: Falling in Love with your Paper), it's a welcome rare event to see the master in print. It just happened - Flossie's in the January edition of The East Bay Monthly. I didn't catch this early enough to get a copy on newsstands, but her essay - an affecting sensory snapshot of her daily life in Oakland, where she's been living for the past few years, in a retirement community called Piedmont Gardens - is online here.


Sunday, January 10, 2010


Without commentary, two observations about voice:
Mel Gussow: What kind of playwright are you?

Tom Stoppard: In general terms, I'm not a playwright who is interested in character with a capital K and psychology with a capital S. I'm a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters to express those ideas. All my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do. When I write an African president into a play, I have to contrive to have him the only African president who speaks like me.

MG: What if you were writing an American play?

TS: All the Americans would have to be educated at Sandhurst or Christchurch - Rhodes scholars discussing John Wayne.

MG: Doesn't that limit you?

TS: It limits me in areas I'm not interested in expanding.

Mel Gussow:
Conversations with Stoppard
July 1979 interview

Nowadays the journalistic critical cliché about a young poet is to say that "he has found his own voice," the emphasis being on his differentness, on the uniqueness of his voice, on the fact that he sound like nobody else. But the Elizabethans at their best as well as at their worst are always sounding like each other. They did not search much after uniqueness of voice....It would hardly have struck them that a style could be used for display of personality.

Thom Gunn
Introduction to
Selected Poems of Fulke Greville
(as quoted by Colm Tóibín
The New York Review of Books, Jan. 14, 2010)

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dear Applicant

A friend whose book is making the rounds of publishers wrote today with rejection anxiety. Lacking any original wisdom about how to handle either the anxiety or the rejection, despite such a wealth of experience with both, I turned (as usual), to e.e. cummings but also to Larry Kramer, who was generous enough to include this passage in introducing The Destiny of Me:
Like me by the men in my life, my play had first to have its own history of rejections: by the Public Theater (both Joe Papp and JoAnne Akalaitis), Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizons (both André Bishop and Don Scardino), American Place Theater, Second Stage, Long Wharf in New Haven, Hartford Stage, Yale Rep (both Lloyd Richards and Stan Wojewodski, Jr.), South Coast Rep in California, the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, and Circle in the Square on Broadway.

I list these not to either tempt fate (oh, the nightmare possibility of those reviews that begin, "The numerous theaters that turned down Larry Kramer's new play were wise indeed...") or flaunt my rejections (The Normal Heart, Faggots, and my screenplay for Women in Love were originally turned down by even larger numbers), but to offer this thought to other writers, and to the little child inside that one talks to: almost more than talent you need tenacity, and an infinite capacity for rejection if you are to succeed. I still don't know where you get these even after writing this play to try to find the answer.
As for E. E. CUMMINGS (as his name is given in the collected poems of 1954), below is the dedication to the volume of poems whose title page is found above:


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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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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paris Days 48, 49, 50 - Parisian girls

I've mentioned already how satisfying the writing process has been these weeks and months in Paris - the consolidation of the notes, the creation of a new outline, the writing, from scratch, of the new draft. This mutually reinforcing set of methodical tasks has silenced the question that disfigures creative artist and trust fund baby alike: what the hell am I doing today? I am a happy writer because I know exactly what I am supposed to be doing at any given moment, and what I'll be doing tomorrow, and even roughly where I'll be when the work comes to an end with James's arrival a month from now: done, or nearly there, with the first write-through of the third draft, 21 months after starting it in Wyoming.

In addition to not being disfigured by unstructured time, I'm also blessed with being under the impression (possibly delusional - see Tolstoy's The Sufferings and Hallucinations of the Painter Mikhailov) that Part III is good. It was the very worst of the four parts in the second draft, and three quarters through this pass, it's shaping up to be my favorite. This, after all, is the quick of the plot, the big garden, the high stakes, the summoning of furies and dispensing of fates. To conclude the novel I've prepared a second climax, which put me into such fits when it occurred to me six weeks ago, but it's extra, coda, exorcism. Part III is pandemonium itself and it had better be good. So if my hallucination holds, or if a few other readers possibly including an agent or Farrar Straus Giroux editor share it, my time here in the monastery will not have been entirely wasted.

So that's how the writing is going. The writer - not quite so well. At least for the time being I've passed through the phase, which must be common to all novelists, where you have hallucinations about your face, and have gotten to the part where you can't breathe. I mean, I can breathe, but it feels like there is a set of rubber bands around my ribcage that only lets me get so much air. It's enough to live on but you always feel oxygen-poor. Various other stress-related ailments have cropped up, but in the interest of not having to post another gruesome-content advisory, I'll leave them to your imagination.

After about ten days of rubber bands hugging my lungs, I started thinking maybe I should take more than my obligatory single day off per week, and because my Israeli friend Ofer was coming to town it seemed like an ideal weekend for two in a row. Free time started last night with drinks over at the Corona, at the Place d'Alma, with friends who work and worship at the American Cathedral, where there may be some interest in Apparition of the Eternal Church. As I wrote in my year-ender, I'm continually surprised by how much fun I have with church folk - and it might give you some idea of what sort of church folk they are to learn, as I did last night, that one is tight with Sister Roma back home.

As I left the Corona I noticed that everyone on the street had their cameras out taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower, which was sparkling the way the Hotel de Ville had been on inauguration night (and yes, I fell for the old landscape/portrait video trick, so please turn your monitor on its side to view):


The festivities continued after dinner when Ofer showed up. He brought a gift all the way from Mendocino County so we had some of that and got naked and got into bed and listened to Alison Goldfrapp and Brazilian Girls and stayed up late doing things that both help loosen respiratory rubber bands and require content advisories. Under circumstances like that I'm prone to fall in love with music and last night was no exception. The judge came over for brunch today and I made him listen to this amazing Brazilian Girls song and help me figure out the lyrics. The diary would be indebted to Martin and other francophone readers if they would make corrections and suggestions to my translation in the comments:

l’impression d’un petit bon homme
si tes raisons sont bonnes,
come on,
prends ton temps et le mien,
car j’y tiens.

Make like a good little boy
if your reasons are good, come on,
take your time, and some of mine,
cause I hold it dear

la vitesse d’un vrai ouragan
l’altitude de quelqu’un qui connaît son coeur
car en somme c’était
J’ai plus peur...

the speed of a hurricane
the altitude of someone who knows his heart
cause in sum it was fun
I'm more afraid...

homme sauvage -
Homme, ta cage j’abandonne

wild man -
Man, I abandon your cage

Ments, puisque savoir mentir est un don,
donne-moi un baiser sur le front puis ments,
ments encore,
mi corazón -
Je te pardonne -

Lie, since to know how to lie is a gift
Kiss me on the forehead then lie
lie again, mi corazón -
I forgive you

finalement le son de mes mots,
éphémère comme le temps,
t’a ratrappé,
Écouter aussi, c’est un don,
Et comprend -

finally the sound of my words
ephemeral like time
it has recaptured you.
Listen also, it's a gift
And understand -

homme sauvage -
Homme, ta cage j’abandonne

The lyrics are steamy enough, but when you combine them with the Piazzolaesque music and Sabina Sciubba's scantily-clad voice you have a real conflagration of a song, and piecing through it over champagne brunch with a single gay guy would seem like a really good opportunity for another content advisory. But the judge is so...judicious, and I had to wait for Ofer to get home before anything happened worthy of "Homme" (yes honey I took pictures).

Still, I have to give it up for the judge. He alone makes me stick to the half English, half French rule - he actually looks at his watch and interrupts me if give up on saying something in French five minutes before my hour is up. Today we worked on nasals and I had some questions for him. The French people are constantly mispronouncing the "in" nasal as if it were "en" or "an," for example saying "Moo-lahn Rouge" instead of "Moo-LAN [holding your nose] Rouge." This has caused me some embarrassment. Someone told me I was an "ecrivant," so for two weeks that's how I described myself in email and chat. Then I saw this street sign -

- which identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an "ecrivain." Yeah, sure you're a "writing."

I became especially concerned about my nasal pronunciation in a recent conversation that turned on the word "con," cunt, which I began to suspect I wasn't differentiating sufficiently from "quand," when ("Cunt are you free for lunch?") The judge pointed out that "Homme" is full of that particular nasal sound, for example "don," gift, which I was also mispronouncing. We figured out this little mnemonic, which I'll leave here in case it's helpful to other gay men working on their French pronunciation:




Ton don est tax-deductible.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Paris Days 38 and 39 - masked ball

I have entered the mental illness phase of the writing process, which has gotten me thinking about Ovid. Ovid was a good writer, but he was too soft-hearted. He couldn't stand to see anything really bad happen to his characters. He'd sooner turn a nymph into a tree than see her raped. He couldn't bring himself to kill off Echo, so he turned her into a sound. Even when he tried to punish someone, he let them off easy. Narcissus, punished for not putting out for some smitten homosexual, was made to waste away pining for his reflection. How long does it take to starve to death, five or six weeks? Couple months? If Ovid really wanted to make Narcissus suffer, he would have made him stare at his own face into his late thirties.

I wrote in the last entry about the hallucinations we suffer looking at our own creative work. Recently, despite a severe apparent shortage of hallucinogens in Paris, the same phenomenon has been affecting various mirrors and my digital camera when my face drifts into them. Much of the time, I will catch a glimpse and give myself the usual props, hey handsome, looking sexy there, keep subtracting five years from your age online. But increasingly over the last few weeks I have caught visions of ruin, horror mask, tales from the French hospital for incurables, and I think, honey, you need to start adding.

Friday around noon there was a nice little pizza party for a new resident here at the monastery. The subject of this blog came up, and that led to a discussion of the wild nightmares I had my first few weeks here and my theory that I was sharing the psychic premises with the ghosts of prior residents who came here with consumption or gangrene instead of the second draft of a first novel (each of us has his cross to bear). Three of the lunch guests made reference to a story about room 326 - mine - that they all agreed was too awful to let me know before my residency is complete.

I find, by the end of my Sunday to Friday work week, that my 6-hour day deteriorates into something closer to five or four hours, and this Friday was no exception. I couldn't get anything done and so took myself on a long walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods, with a vague goal of winding up at the old opera house, which I'd never seen. I wasn't expecting it when I came upon it and the sight took my breath away:

On the walk home I took pictures of fierce mannequins that I'll save for a day I can't think of anything to write. Saturday I commenced my day of leisure by updating this diary, calling into question my use of the word leisure - chronic problem. At three o'clock I biked down to the Beaubourg for a coffee date with a Costa Rican mime, followed by a 4:30 tea date with a Welsh friend on the Rue Montorgeuil who has an amazing library of books relevant to the novel and loans them to me, followed by a 6:30 date near the Bastille with Martin's friend Sophie. As her complete noncomprehension of English became apparent, I thought, how am I going to get through this? Two hours later, I asked myself, do I speak French now? We'd been talking nonstop and it was nearly nine. Perhaps I'd cheated, gotten by sticking to safe topics, vocabulary covered in the first ten chapters of my French textbook - what will you have to eat and what is it that you do for a living. But for two hours?

I had one last social engagement Saturday, and here is the part of the blog where I must issue a warning to readers under the age of 14, blood relations, and anyone who considers him- or herself squeamish about stories concerning the reproductive organs, because as amusing as I find this story today it's actually kind of gross.

It all started on Facebook, of course, or maybe it started on Gmail when San Francisco friends furnished emails of introduction to Parisians and I struck up Facebook chats with one of them. He invited me to a masked ball Saturday night, the invitation for which read, in part:
A mask is required. And, gentlemen, I refer to a mask on your eyes [loup also means wolf]. Or a face mask, or whatever you want but something on your head. For the rest, you don't have to wear a thing - naked bodies are fine with us.

And here's the original, in case it's my translation skills that got me into trouble:

Un loup est obligatoire. Et, messieurs, je parle bien d’un loup sur les yeux. Ou un masque, ou ce que vous voulez mais quelque chose sur la tête. Pour le reste, vous pouvez ne rien mettre. Le corps nu nous va très bien.
Give me some credit: I didn't take them literally about going naked. I wore the stretch-tite silver sequinned hotpants that I got from Momo Le Moins Cher for my Beltane wardrobe, and for "quelque chose sur la tête" I wore a Vegas-style belt with beaded tassles that I picked up in the same place. Look, I didn't grow up in San Francisco, the son of a man who's placed in numerous Bay-to-Breakers costume contests, and give the dregs of my youth over to Trannyshack, and spend the last three years hanging out with the Radical Faeries for nothing - I have some basic drag skills. Maybe it's true, as some unkind person remarked, that I looked like I was wearing a lampshade. So what? Short on disposable income, I make do with available materials. Also, when you're experiencing novel-induced hallucinations about your face disintegrating before your eyes, it's surprisingly comforting to go to a party with a sort of bag over your head.

Not everyone at the party was pleased with my outfit, or with the behavior of various guests and even hosts in the presence of the outfit, especially toward the end of the 52 bottles of champagne we wound up putting away. The Facebook friend of a friend who invited me to the party in the first place only half-jokingly refused to acknowledge me when we were introduced. But if you come to Paris, and you're concerned about a party being dull, with a bunch of reserved Parisians
incomprehensibly murmuring this about Sarko and that about la crise, bust out with a little Showgirls drag. Because in the presence of some silver sequins and a little skin, these people turn into complete animals.

I promised you a revolting story about my reproductive organs (kind of funny to call them that, considering their usual circumstances, but whatever) and as much as I would like to put this diary entry out of its misery a promise is a promise. After five hours of being manhandled by homosexual Parisians and a few of their girlfriends, I came home with the worst case of blue balls I have ever had - not because they hurt so much, although they did, and not because my balls were swollen to the size of Meyer lemons, as they were when I auditioned with Suppositori Spelling for John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus workshop, but because they were so swollen that the left one seemed to have actually burst open and halfway given birth to a third ball. I sat there, palpating this monstrous seam, wondering, are even my fingers hallucinating now? You'll be happy to know that after sleeping with a bag of frozen peas tucked between my legs, I woke up with everything restored to its proper size and shape.

My peas got mushy. Co-sponsor my next trip to Franprix.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Paris Day 36 and 37 - feedback purge

If I didn't get my point across in the last posting about feedback on finished work, it wasn't for lack of emphasis. The trickier question is about feedback on unfinished work; it's also a more consequential question, since the first kind of feedback can result in a mood swing, while the second kind can result in a better work of art, or a worse one.

A few years ago, a trusted mentor startled me by declining to read a draft of the novel, describing himself as "more and more of the mind that 'feedback' is an overrated commodity - it's best to trust yourself, and too much listening to what other people think can lead a writer to grow deaf to his/her own intuitions. Stare closely and meticulously at your own writing, over time, and you'll find the way..."

I love the purity of this idea, and I love it especially considering the source, one of the most fearlessly original artists I know. His intuitions are spectacularly strange and beautiful, and they are the kinds of intuitions MFA programs, New York Times book reviews and the publishing industry are designed to crush. He is one of those artists, like Messiaen or Gilbert & George, maybe Bjork though it's hard to see it through her ubiquity, who flawlessly execute a performance of perfect comfort within their own self-crafted skin, and you probably don't get there from here by taking other people's advice on how to make your art.

I've been writing fairly seriously, regularly, with purpose, since I was about 12. I started making the film 20 years later. But I feel like an experienced filmmaker and a novice writer. Part of that is obviously because I've put my first film out into the world, and the novel isn't finished yet, but I felt the confidence gap even before the film had had its first screening. I solicited feedback on the movie-in-progress and disregarded almost all of it. But if someone criticizes a passage in the novel, even one in which I thought I had perfect confidence, my psychic I-beams start to melt. And the steel begins to buckle even before the criticism is uttered, even before it forms in the critic's mind. The moment the work is exposed to the air, all the confidence of these weeks in Paris will vaporize:
During the few seconds that the visitors were silently gazing at the picture Mihailov, too, looked at it with the indifferent eye of a stranger. For those few seconds he was sure in advance that the most profound and equitable of judgements would be pronounced by those very visitors whom he had been so despising a moment ago. He forgot all he had thought about the picture during the three years he had been working on it, forgot all its qualities which he had been so certain of, and saw it with the fresh, indifferent eyes of these strangers, and saw nothing good in it. He saw in the foreground Pilate's irritated face and the serene face of Christ, and in the background the figures of Pilate's retinue and the face of John, watching what was taking place. Each face that, after so much searching, so many blunders and alterations, had grown up within him with its own character, each face that had caused him such torments and such raptures, and all of them so often placed and replaced to make a whole, the shades of colour and tone obtained with such effort - seen now with their eyes struck him as a series of commonplaces repeated over and over again. Even the face of Christ, which he most prized, the centre of the picture, that had sent him wild with joy as it unfolded itself to him, was lost when he glanced at the picture with their eyes. He saw a well-painted (and not so well-painted in places either - he noticed a multitude of defects) repetition of those innumerable Christs of Titian, Raphael, Rubens, with the same soldiers and the same Pilate. It was all hackneyed, poor, stale, and positively badly painted - weak and unequal. They would be justified in saying a few polite things in his presence and then pitying and laughing at him when they were gone.

What gives me equal parts hope and hopelessness is that Tolstoy (translation: Rosemary Edmonds) makes this vain, quasi-delusional nervous wreck of a painter a really good artist, if not a great one, his own avatar in the novel, painting an aesthetically dazzling and psychologically penetrating portrait of Anna Karenina. A sickness (it's called subjectivity) seizes us when we work and when we show our work, a high fever with vivid hallucinations, where nothing is stable, and a passage or figure shifts in and out of originality and quality like a bedpost turning into a shifty little dwarf and then back into wood. Because we are constantly hallucinating, we turn to others for the answer, for some connection, however mediated, to objectivity and critical stability. And those are the most elusive chimeras, but they can't be dismissed because we know that Messiaen is great (even if you don't like him) and that John Grisham is terrible (even if you enjoy him), and before we expose ourselves to the great cosmic streaking escapade of publication, we would like to know roughly where we fall on that spectrum, and more importantly we would like, if it's possible, to claw ourselves a little closer to Messiaen.

And it seems like the way to do that is by getting a little feedback, but the only way is to swear it off.

If I promise not to ask you to read my draft, will you buy me a beer?

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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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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paris Days 29 - 33 - bounce

When it comes to obscenity, I alternate unpredictably between prudishness and Tourette's, and so I have spent about half the time since posting the last entry embarrassed about the title ("fuck la crise"). I was also embarrassed to miss three postings in a row. That turned into five thanks to an incident that gave me new reason to regret "fuck la crise" - life has issued a little warning that the reverse is much more likely to be true.

My laptop is dying. It's a four and a half year old PowerBook that I have handled as though it were made out of spun sugar - not once did I bring it to a cafe, leave it in a hot car, feed it crumbs, or submerge it in bathwater. It's 25 percent past its life expectancy making it, in human years, something like 103. It is exhibiting symptoms consistent with extreme senility - dementia, irritability, a tendency to wander, inability to form new memories, and a kind of twilight zone between sleeping and waking that has manifested itself in the sleep light always being on, for example right now as I type this blog entry into it. This thing with the light was the result of a progressive deterioration, which began with an intermittent but very bright flickering that gathered in intensity and duration, and as anyone who has suffered through Afterwards well knows, that is nothing less than Death flashing his brights and telling you the time is nigh.

Though on some level I understand my existence as a writer to be predicated on others' enjoyment of my suffering, it seems like the height of bad taste for me to dwell on what this death watch has been like for me. Who wants to hear about other people's technology problems? I seriously think the rate of suicide from boredom must have doubled among bartenders after PCs became commonplace. Suffice it to say that I no longer need the ghosts of this old monastery/hospice/military hospital to wake me up, my heart racing, at two in the morning.

The frustrating thing is that I feel like I'm so close to being able to pull this off. Juliette once put it this way after I had a big memory slip near the end of a 110-minute recital: "You go on a long trip, you're on the road a month, then you're on your way back and two blocks from home you have a wreck." The trick to this whole three-and-a-half-year self-employed filmmaker/writer/violinist journey of mine is that it was always a viable path as long as nothing expensive happened. For the 18 recent and interminable hours in which my laptop would not respond to electricity, tears or threats, I glimpsed the end of the road, and it was a tall and very hard wall.

"About la crise," one of you wrote in last week. "Don't obsess (unless it's exciting): you're smart; you're sexy; more important you know how to

I like this thought, especially that last part. I want it to be true. To make it true I need to ask your help. In order to deal with my technology meltdown, to make it through this next, hopefully last stretch before the book is finished and put up for sale, and to get me through to May when I can embark on some institutional fundraising for my video projects, I'm passing the hat among readers of this blog.

If this blog has given you any pleasure, provided any insight, or distracted you from something unpleasant you really should have been doing, like work, please consider making a donation. Any donation - $5, $10, it doesn't matter - will earn my profound gratitude (writers are always shocked to be paid).

I'm also offering these tokens of my gratitude for more substantial support:
Giving is easy - for gifts of less than $35 (or if you don't want the tax letter), you can use PayPal to or send a check, made out to me, to 3482 22nd Street, Apt. B, San Francisco, CA 94110.

For gifts of $35 and more, ODC Theater - where I have a three-year residency - is acting as my fiscal sponsor and can provide you with a receipt for tax purposes. Please send a check
made out to ODC Theater to the following address:

Director, ODC Theater
Shotwell Street
San Francisco, CA
94110 - re: Paul Festa

Please include a note indicating that the donation is toward my residency. Please also send me email letting me know that you have donated so that I can make sure you get your receipt and gifts.

If you can't give right now, I understand. Believe me I understand. I hope you keep reading.

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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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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Paris Day 27 - badness part 1

I've been preoccupied for the last several days with the idea of badness, and so much of my own work and that of others I've encountered recently has been relevant to this theme that what I have to say won't fit into a single diary entry. Hence the title, which has an especially nice ring to it on my Facebook status (Paul Festa is badness part 1).

I had reason to think about badness on Monday, the day I woke up to snow and spent the rainy afternoon working at Au Train de Vie. There I was, sitting in this warm, perfectly comfortable French brasserie, periodically putting down sentences in the novel and otherwise watching waves of commuters make their way through the rain to and from the station. I was enjoying everything about this experience, especially my bouncy upholstered train car seat and even the challenge of the work, and most pertinently the mere fact that I was doing my work here, in Paris, in the Jerusalem of my creative spirit. Right in the middle of one of these self-satisified space-outs, the song changed on the radio and Frankie Goes to Hollywood began singing Relax.

I remember liking this song when I was fifteen years old. It was dirty, which was good in and of itself, but it was also the gayest thing I had ever heard through the mass media, and this seemed like progress. So I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Relax, but the soft spot had gone all rotten on Monday because all I could hear, listening to this song in the city of Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Brel, for that matter, was its howling badness, the sex joke stripped of its humor and its shock value by a quarter century of repetition, the violence
(when you wanna sucka to it) done to language, the ferocious banality of the music itself and the sound effects and the whole, awful, depressing package forced down our collective global cultural throat for - I repeat - a quarter of a century.

So, much like when anyone tells you to relax, the song had the opposite effect on me and I became agitated thinking about badness, primarily about the tragedy of our species' cultural future being determined by a free market whose most heavily weighted decision-making shares are controlled by American thirteen-year-old gay boys and their girlfriends. In what other realm of global consequence would we be so careless in entrusting authority, except perhaps the world's most powerful military over the last eight years? Yes, the song in question is English but somehow I just know that it is the fault of my motherland that I was subjected to it in a brasserie overlooking the train tracks to the Gare de l'Est, and while I've always known that American cultural imperialism was an irrefutable fact of life and lamented it, on Monday I understood that it was a tragedy, and I became angry about it, and because there's nothing I can do to influence what gets played on the radio I became deeply concerned, or more deeply concerned than usual, about the moral consequences of my own badness.

So much of what I do is bad. Remember how I said I would read through the diary Feb. 1, beginning to end? Never did it - I'm too afraid of all the badness that's nested in these daily dispatches, starved as they are for revision and that cardinal labor of composition, excision. Those rejection letters I could make residential high-rises out of? Most of them, obviously, were the consequence of how many artistic deaf-mutes sit on selection and admissions committees, but several of them certainly the result of my own badness. And then there are the several hundred thousand words that I have written into this novel and then deleted - novels worth of badness, thrown onto the compost heap to rot with all the novels before this one that I've abandoned, and with that part of my heart that could once listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood without mourning the death of culture or France or the human spirit.

I wrote before how the work I'm doing now, the actual writing, is excruciatingly difficult but the time flies beneath it - a three-hour morning vanishes like a small fraction of the time. The labored extraction of these sentences from my brain - maybe it's like brain surgery. These teams of surgeons are bent over the patient for six, seven, twelve hours, and when it's through, have those hours passed as they would had the surgeons been on a Stairmaster or reading press releases in a cubicle? However else the work is painful, I am not bored, I am hypnotized by the spectacle of this novel unspooling, not unlike the way Matt couldn't bear to take his eyes off Afterward despite well-founded fears that its badness would continue unrelieved all the way through to the end.

What if the novel is just as bad as that movie, or, to tease the imagination to outer limits, what if it is actually in some ways worse? I value the experience of bad art, not because I enjoy chortling over someone else's mediocrity - I really don't - but because it is so instructive. I once read a John Grisham novel and it was a dismal exercise to get through and one of the most valuable in my self-education as a writer, because after 350 pages of having him bash me over the head with an idea before making an incision in my arm and pumping it into my bloodstream and then burying me in a coffin stuffed full of the idea with a subterranean sound system blaring it for all eternity before he repeated it one more time, just in case I missed it - after 350 pages of this literary bludgeoning I became significantly more sensitive to my own capacity to do exactly the same thing.

It is so close to us, the badness we make, that we cannot see it without a radical perspectival shift, or a hideous reflection glimpsed in someone else's work. The other day, seeing grotesquely bad things in Afterwards, I became convinced my novel was bad in many of the same ways - even now, after editing it mindful of the lesson gleaned at such cost from Grisham and his irredeemable badness. This is why I wanted to flee the theater - the idea that I would inflict such pain on a reader as this film was inflicting on me was almost more than I could entertain outside of a padded cell. I resolved, if nothing else, to be bad in a different way. The bludgeon I use on my reader, I resolved, will be pink, with green fleurs de lys imprinted on it, glitter-glued, LED lights flashing up and down the handle. Don't you get it? The bludgeon is the subject. (Note to Corporate - shave some zeros off his advance). Here - look at the notebook I'm writing this in:

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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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