Wednesday, December 14, 2011


One of my favorite holiday traditions has become my friends' JJ and Marisol's annual caroling party. Sunday night was the second year I participated, and it was magical. This year's theme was Sock Puppets. Our merry crew took to the streets of Angelino Heights, which teems with beautiful Victorian homes. Our sock-covered hands belted out holiday classics like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Come on Feel the Noise," accompanied by an acoustic guitar. We were invited into a few homes and rewarded with cookies (and in one case, a fistful of joints).

My sock puppet was hella hungover on Monday

I'm not a scrooge. I can get behind secular holiday traditions -- spending time with loved ones, preparing/eating rich food, the spirit of generosity, etc. What I'm not down with is the rampant consumerism, which punches me in the gut a little harder each year. How many Starbucks gift cards, scented candles, ugly scarves and functionless thingamabobs does a person need? This year, I'm bowing out. I'm not buying a single gift, and those who might be inclined to buy me something are under instructions not to bother.

What I'm also not down with is another Phoenix Christmas. I'd rather visit my mom under different circumstances. It's just she and my brother and we don't have any traditions to speak of. She usually works on Christmas anyway. So, a few months ago, I made an executive decision to do what I wanted to with my holiday off-time. I'm spending 12 days in Costa Rica, learning Spanish and practicing yoga. Adios, muchachos.

Mom wasn't thrilled about my holiday travel plans, but to compensate, I offered to buy her the French Bulldog she's been dreaming about for months. Apparently, this dog is a suitable stand-in for me. She lit up as soon as I made the offer, and Costa Rica hasn't been mentioned since. Win-win.

Next year, I'm dreaming of a Thai Christmas. I wonder what animal I will have to sacrifice for that one.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

on writing

I haven't been writing here lately because I'm in the throes of a personal essay-writing class. It's taught by a prolific essayist -- a woman who earns her living writing these things, freelance, publishing her work in glossy mags and newspapers on a regular basis. The objective of the class is to refine your craft, learn some tricks of the trade and get your work published -- and many of her previous students have succeeded in this. The instructor knows the industry well and offers great insight (sometimes shockingly) into her students' work. At times, the class feels more like a group therapy session than a writing workshop, and while that's a little weird for me, it can get interesting. There are ten people in the class, and based on the early drafts I've read, I'd estimate 2/3 are writing publishable material. Yes, I realize that leaves us with a fraction of a person, but it's still pretty good.

In taking this class, I've learned that I don't have much love for the personal essay as a genre (I didn't really know what I was signing up for when I registered). Most personal essay writing is somewhat glib for my taste -- easy to swallow life-lessons, and it's not really my bag.

I wasn't taking the class to get my work published. My B.A. is in journalism and I worked as a writer for a few years after college, absolutely hating it, which is why I wound up a librarian. I adore the written word, but find it painful to write on command in a voice that is not always my own about things that do not move me. So instead, I chose to surround myself with the words of others.

But I still love writing. Over the years, it's become therapeutic for me. Since I mostly write about myself these days, it affords me a different kind of control over my life. I'm able to craft a narrative, assign symbols, and make connections among things that are not necessarily related so I can make some sense of them. It's comforting. I journal frequently and write here sometimes, and maybe this sounds silly, but it's a way to give my world some meaning.

I took this class because I wanted to become more disciplined about my writing, and maybe get some ideas going with an eye toward writing something long-form in the future. Maybe. I was testing the waters. But I was embarrassed by the essay draft I brought to class Tuesday night. For lack of a more apt metaphor, I thought it was a piece of shit.

In the course of writing the essay, I decided I was a fool for taking this class. I was struggling with the personal essay formula my instructor had prescribed. There was a format, and I didn't know how to make my writing comply. Reading the first round of my classmates' drafts the previous week, I was surprised by the mostly consistent tone of their writing: breezy and conversational, and in some cases, quite witty. When done well, it's a style of writing I often admire in others because it seems so effortless.

By comparison, my own writing feels heavy and twisted, complicated and literary. I mean this in the worst possible way. Just because something is literary doesn't mean it's any good. And that's how I felt about the essay I brought to class Tuesday night: it was the work of someone who couldn't master the personal essay trying to disguise it with the affected voice of literary fiction. I didn't do it on purpose, but it's the only way I know how to write about anything personal -- with the distance my narrative voice affords. And I hated the parts of the essay where I had to talk explicitly about the way I felt -- what the instructor calls "your ugly paragraph(s)." I wasn't used to writing this way. I shy away from spelling anything out for a reader, and prefer to communicate my feelings through scene and metaphor.

I tried to put a positive spin on it. The class hadn't been a waste of my time. I'd learned a valuable lesson from this experience: I don't want to write for other people. I don't want to be published. Maybe it was time to put my pen away. And what was I doing with this stupid, sporadically updated blog anyway? It's embarrassing and I should probably just delete it. Keep this stuff in my journal.

You can probably guess where this is going, so I won't detail the overwhelmingly positive feedback my essay received, and my instructor's insistence that I publish it. As my classmates handed copies of my draft back to me, I kept seeing the same comment scrawled across the top: "write a memoir." "memoir material." "have you thought about writing a memoir?"

The essay I wrote is about buying my mother a dog, but of course, that's not what it's really about. I haven't decided if I want to submit it anywhere because I don't know how representative it is of my style as a writer. I made a lot of compromises.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. Maybe this is a blog post about when I started to take myself more seriously as a writer. Or maybe it's a more general commentary about how unforgiving and critical of myself I can be, and how maybe I should lighten up. But I'm not sure that it's either of those things. I've come to no conclusions, which is probably why I'll never be a good personal essayist.