If you want to hear me read from The Artstars, you’re in luck! So far I have dates confirmed for
Youngstown, OH, 10/5/2019
Portland, ME (BIG LAUNCH!) 10/17/2019
New York, NY 11/21/2019
Westbrook, ME 4/9/2020
Keep an eye on this space for updates.
(Warning to readers of The Artstars: this post contains minor spoilers.)
Midway into my first draft of “Three Lessons in Firesurfing,” I discovered that my narrator-protagonist was not as woke as I wanted her to be. She was afraid of her new friend, who presented as a butch Lesbian: “Lesbians make me uneasy sometimes. I’m never sure how friendly I should get.” She was afraid of her other new friend, a talented Korean-American sculptor: “Steve intimidates me terribly.” She was a fish out of water, timid generally and afraid most of all of being misunderstood. She was even afraid of Midwesterners: “Whoever said Midwesterners were polite never had to deal with this lot.” As the voice emerged from some part of my consciousness, her fear of difference bloomed. What did this say about me? What vile part of my brain was generating these thoughts? Will people assume it is a self-portrait? Will my Lesbian friends hurl the book across the room? Should I cut that line, for the sake of keeping the peace, for the sake of not hurting my friendships, for the sake of not hurting my friends, for the sake of my reputation? Should I cut the part where she thinks of her Asian friend as “inscrutable?”
Or, should I use those bigoted thoughts as a way to let the character begin to wake up?
Speaking of hurling books, I had that reaction to Willa Cather once, when she described the “wool” of a Black person’s hair. There the book went, behind the bed, where it wedged against the wall for a good week before made myself pick it up again. The book was My Antonia. I’m glad I continued reading it. The character was a servant’s son with natural talent at the piano. Yes, there are clichés in Cather’s depiction. Yes, it is offensive to contemporary readers. But Cather engaged with the character and allowed him to transform. What Cather’s work doesn’t do is present a homogenous world of rich, white, city people. She earnestly depicted the world she knew, which was a diverse one. And there is a plain purity to Cather’s language that puts this earnestness on display. I am moved by it. I don’t know if all readers are, but I am.
I found myself blogging on the Cather book and concluding that the most earnest among us cannot see our own prejudice. We are likely to fall into clumsiness and unintended effects, but that should not stop the effort. And I also resolved to keep my cast of characters as diverse as the world around me and to let my protagonist have her uncomfortable thoughts—and to let her be relatively likable as well—but I also recognized that this earnest storyteller had some responsibility. I could not just let those bigoted thoughts lie.
The story suddenly became about prejudice—hers, that of the small towns she visited—and her immunity to the real dangers her new friends faced. I thought it was supposed to be a story about making sculpture. But as often happens at the keyboard, this story had a mind of its own. And I realized that in breaking open her thinking about her artwork, she might begin to notice the flaws in her thinking about other people.
But that shit is tough to pull off. And I may not have. Too much and it becomes an Afterschool Special. Too little and you are alienating and triggering beloved readers. Either way, I kept it all in, to open up the conversation. I really want to hear your feelings and thoughts. Even if they are difficult ones.
Check out this essay by Sea Stachura at Ploughshares Blog, “Writing Racist Characters.” She challenges (especially Caucasian) fiction writers to take on the responsibility of exposing the bigotry in our midst, specifically racism. She explores the topic through the lens of craft, paying attention to the modulation of narrative distance and other strategies in fiction by Eudora Welty and Danielle Evans, citing guiding critical texts by Toni Morrison and Robin DiAngelo.
There’s a scene in “Pink,” one of the stories in The Artstars, where a traumatized character looks at the words of Walt Whitman embedded in a railing, under the sky where the Twin Towers used to be. In the months after 9/11, as I wandered through the transformed downtown taking photographs both mental and literal, Uncle Walt’s metallic words gave me comfort: “City of the World! (For all races are here, / all the lands of the earth make contributions here) / City of the Sea! / City of wharves and stores -- city of tall facades of marble and iron! / Proud and passionate city -- mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” I needed Walt’s exuberant love of this place. In addition to doubling down on my identity as a finance/database worker, I doubled down on being a New Yorker. These were my mettlesome people. I loved my city, where strangers pitched in and helped each other to cross rivers. Where strangers ran into burning skyscrapers to rescue strangers, or later walked into smoldering ruins to recover strangers’ remains. Where strangers gathered at ground zero and risked filling their lungs with poison to give food and succor to strangers. Everyone was pitching in and I was in love with everyone. All lands of the earth were making contributions! With exclamation points!
But with time, and with a change of civic loyalties, it dawns on me that I should read the whole Whitman poem. Here it is:
City of Ships
CITY of ships!
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful sharp-bow'd steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here,
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores - city of tall facades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city - mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up O city - not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself, warlike!
Fear not - submit to no models but your own O city!
Behold me - incarnate me as I have incarnated you!
I have rejected nothing you offer'd me-whom you adopted I have adopted,
Good or bad I never question you - I love all - I do not condemn any thing,
I chant and celebrate all that is yours-yet peace no more,
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine,
War, red war is my song through your streets, O city!
I can’t help but consider the lasting legacy of 9/11, not just on those of us who were incarnated by firsthand experience, but in the global realm. Despite my lament of innocence lost, my old letters are so innocent in time. On the funny side, I was fretting over the painstaking restoration of a forty gigabyte database. On the less funny side, I referred to the war in Iraq, not quite realizing that we were about to have another one, a really long one, that the attacks on New York were going to become a battle cry, an excuse to rush into the world with our American war technology and punish without precision. The collateral damage of the aftermath of 9/11 just might overshadow the psychological damage we New Yorkers felt that year. I don’t want to minimize the feelings. The grief is real. I definitely don’t want to minimize the pain and serious illness now felt by the rescue and recovery workers who were poisoned by the dust at ground zero. But I do want to pay attention to what the United States chose to do in response.
Whitman got it. Maybe without enough irony. Maybe a bit gung-ho, because his war was a righteous one. But he got it: “In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine.”
What do we do with our anger? Especially if people we know and love were killed? If places we loved were obliterated? What do we do?
Now, in Maine, I live in a city that welcomes refugees from Iraq, escapees from the situation we created over there. I teach young veterans from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose stories are amazing and heartbreaking. And I sit and think a lot, and write a lot. I’m still too confused to beat a drum. But that may change, if I write into it enough.
That’s the last I’ll say on it for now. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.
In the weeks after 9/11, I stopped writing fiction. I carried my 35mm camera everywhere and photographed the beautiful. I didn’t turn my lens on the smoldering pit or the jumbles of dusty teddy bears and memorial gifts. These were documented plenty by the professionals, who were there in droves, paying attention to the rescue and recovery workers, the remnants of the towers, the smoke. What I noticed was the changed light, the newly empty sky over lower Manhattan. The sun was no longer blocked by the towers.
When we moved back into my office building, after the all-clear, management had brought in a few perks to boost morale. One of them was free Starbucks coffee, the better to keep us toiling late on the rescue of our data and deals. One was free popcorn, the better to keep our stomachs aching, like sandpaper moving through the old GI tract. And one was the installation of temporary walls over the windows that looked out at the place where the towers used to be. To make the temporary walls festive, and to help us to access our innocence again, they hung funhouse mirrors, so we could look at many versions of ourselves while we enjoyed our free coffee and popcorn.
Funhouse mirrors. Not making this up.
That was one of the absurd, beautiful things I photographed. I printed and framed one: a self-portrait, multiversioned and blurred and distorted, the way we all felt downtown in the winter of 2001. I’ve searched for the right words for this feeling ever since.
In retrospect, I’m glad I kept the camera handy instead of the pen. What I needed to do was look out, not down. I needed to see what was happening. There would be plenty of time to write it down.
This isn’t really turning into an essay about craft. At least not the craft of writing. Perhaps it’s about the craft of being. Everywhere, suddenly, were posters: If you see something, say something. It seemed too knee-jerk to me. It was too early to speak. Our Yemeni bodega man risked arrest just by existing. Brown people were everywhere subject to furtive words and whispers by the terrified non-brown, who seemed not to understand that there are all kinds of terror, and that terrorists are angry for a reason, and God forbid I should say something pro-Muslim to someone who lost someone the other day. So I said nothing. I wrote little. But I looked. I looked a lot. I went out on my lunch hour with my camera and looked. Everything went into the image bank, and leaked out years later, in dreams. And later, on the page.
And yet I’m grateful for the two things I wrote during the aftermath, letters reporting to friends and family that I was bearing up. The friends were curious, and frightened, and too far away to pitch in. So I reported. Here is the second of the two letters, full of raw language and sleep deprivation.
Dear family and friends,
Again, I apologize for using the bulk email approach to keep you apprised of developments here. I have been very bad about returning calls and I promise when I am not so sleep deprived I will be more diligent and considerate.
At long last, I now have a temporary office space until I get to go back into the World Financial Center (WFC). I am now sitting in a cubicle at the corner of Broadway and Fulton, right across from St. Paul's Chapel. My new cube is on the 4th floor of 222 Broadway, and I have a window that faces the former World Trade Center (WTC). Ironically, my new location is actually closer to the disaster site than my old one. But since this building is not physically connected to the WTC and miraculously sustained no damage from the flying rubble, it is pretty much ok to use.
Basically I have been getting here at 8 AM every day (unfortunately weekend too) and leaving late at night, so I have had the opportunity to watch the continuous scenario outside. The back of St. Paul's faces the remains of the WTC, and the front faces my "new" office building, which is actually at least 40 years old. My building is on the edge of the militarized zone which is restricted to law enforcement, rescue/recovery workers and those who support them on an "official" basis, and professionals hired to clean up the mess and assess the damage. Boy, is it a zoo. Even restricting the area to "official" people, there are plenty of them to go around. St. Paul's is inside the militarized zone, operating as a food/sleep/prayer station for the workers, complete with a row of portable toilets lining the street in front of the church's facade. Despite the toilets, I find the church an interesting and inspiring thing to look at day in and day out while we try to resurrect our database. We can gauge the time of day by watching them lay out the buffets on the front steps. I learned today St. Paul’s is Manhattan's oldest public building of continuous use. Despite the horrible things that went on directly adjacent to it, the church has survived well and continues its service, even as many of the newer buildings around it have become either bombed-out shells or piles of rubble. And, I might add, most of the beautiful old gravestones are still standing. When the flowers grow back, I imagine the church grounds will look much like they have for two hundred years.
My building appears to be in a semi-militarized zone, which means sometimes I have to show my badge to walk down the street and sometimes I don't, depending on what vehicles need the street. Saturday morning they made me circle several blocks to get to the entrance. When I finally reached the checkpoint, some workers from Krispy Kreme were bringing in donuts, I presume to one of the food tents. One of the NYPD said maybe he should "inspect" the contents of the boxes. Cops, donuts, it's nice to know that some things don't change. People are genuinely trying to keep their sense of humor in a confusing and painful environment. Of course I had to tease the cop about being a donut specialist. The feeling in lower Manhattan right now is one of genuine friendliness, along with the shock that comes from seeing the emptiness where the towers once were.
We are sharing our cafeteria with cops, National Guard, and firemen from all over the country, who can come inside for a free hot meal and a nap. The cafeteria is on the fifteenth floor, which offers a very clear aerial view of the WTC ruins. In general, the cops sit near the windows and look in awe at the slow progress. The firemen sit away from the window, clearly having already seen enough. They are dressed in construction gear which I presume has been donated, and they leave dust footprints on the carpet. The first day I went in, there were tons of firemen eating up there, but as the week wore on, their numbers dwindled. My first theory was that they were all gourmets and found better food elsewhere. My second theory is that they were not comfortable getting on the elevator with fussy bankers in clean, expensive suits, loaded down with laptops, palm pilots, and cell phones, talking about money. To tell you the truth, I have never been entirely comfortable with that “suit” element, but over time I have grown to have compassion for the wealthy too. But if I were a fireman on a job such as this, I might not want to eat lunch with the likes of us.
Outside, there are a lot of gawkers. National Guard are fairly polite as they ask people to refrain from photography. At first I thought it was gross to come down here just to look, but then, as I watched people's faces, I realized people *need* to see it. It's not about saying "I was there." It's about proving to yourself that it really happened, that it wasn't just a bad dream. I have found that sitting and watching the workers and the smoke rising from the pit has helped me to come to terms with the reality and the magnitude of what has happened to our city. It has also helped me not to feel sorry for myself for working sixteen hour shifts. At least I have a comfortable chair and a toilet that flushes.
Which leads to an interesting point...I am awed by the infrastructure that has materialized here practically overnight. They have built a large tent city, complete with a portable McDonalds parked in front of the shell of WTC 5. This would never be possible in, say, a third world country. This kind of devastation is unfamiliar to most of us in North America and people are beside themselves trying to pitch in. While I imagine the instinct to help is pretty universal, the fact that we have the resources to do it is particularly American. The surplus of donated supplies is a testament to that.
However, I would not exactly call this tent city a well-oiled machine. It is too big for that to be possible. People are really cooperating, but there are so many government and private organizations involved that the information flow is problematic. This became very clear to me on Friday, when my colleague Marina and I went into the crime scene to retrieve some computers.
I'll start from the beginning because the story is actually pretty funny. We got a call at about noon that we got clearance for two volunteers to go into the building. We had already sent in one commando group consisting of my boss Anne and two others from my team. They got our servers out, which has saved us loads of time because we don't have to restore as much. (Apparently, restoring a forty gigabyte database is not trivial, even if you have it all backed up on tape.) However, we also wanted to bring out two high-power CPU's with proprietary code on them. We have all been given laptops but they do not have the juice to do all our calculations in a timely manner.
(Again, I realize our computer problems are trivial in the grand scheme of things...like Mike Piazza said the other night, "It's just baseball, it's not life or death." We're all just doing our jobs, while we still have them.)
Since Marina and I had not been in the WFC yet, we both volunteered. I was actually keen to go in and see the state of our facility, since I had heard everything from “the building is falling” to “we’ll be back in next week.” While the tech support guys worked on getting us individual clearance to go in, I went outside and bought a backpack, a luggage cart, two flashlights, some veggie sticks, and two little bottles of red wine. I figured if we got stuck in there (which we were warned was likely), or if the building fell on us, we could at least have a toast. Then I charged my phone and worked on our database until we got further instruction.
At 4:30, Marina and I proceeded by subway to our first stop, Merrill Lynch’s technology bunker (huge), which is in an unmarked warehouse in the meatpacking district. There we got notarized passes and a second luggage cart. We took the city bus uptown to W. 38th Street to catch a 6:45 “special” ferry to the WFC. We were the only passengers on the ferry—we felt special indeed! It dropped us off in front of the WFC’s Mercantile Exchange and we tried to figure out where to go next given all the roadblocks between us and our building, which is a half a block from the water. A National Guardsman told us to walk up to Warren St. So we did, essentially walking the same path I did on September 11. We could not help looking back at the emptiness where the towers once were, remembering that day. Cops directed us to a checkpoint near Stuyvesant High, where we asked how to get the escort we required to go into the building. NYPD sent us to National Guard, who sent us to NYPD. We went into a tent where they had a faxed list of who was supposed to be allowed in. We were turned away, told to go ask some cops, who were the same cops who had directed us to the tent. Several National Guardsmen had words with each other over what the policy was supposed to be. The answer was repeatedly “I don’t know. Go ask those guys over there.” Several people said, “Oh, you’re from Merrill? Then what you need to do is go to Fulton and Broadway. There you can get clearance to go in.” Fulton and Broadway? That’s where we started! The whole time we were laughing that maybe if we were younger and cuter it would be easier finding an escort.
Then we walked basically back the way we came, alone, greeting the same law enforcement guys who recognized us and let us pass. We saw a street cleared for vehicles and decided to walk down it and see if anyone stopped us. We just acted like we knew what we were doing and eventually got to the building. The air definitely smelled like death. I realized that we were probably very close to the morgue tent. It was one of those smells that is familiar and human and it surprisingly did not bother me as much as the smoke and chemical dust in our new office. Death is a very sad smell but not a scary one, at least to me. It only reminded me that these people are no longer frightened and suffering.
We tried several entrances to our building and finally gained admittance. As we entered the building at about 7:30, Marina remarked, “It has taken us three hours to go four blocks!”
Inside they checked our credentials and assigned us to Steven, a Merrill security guy who would escort us to our floors. We took the freight elevator to the 21st and went into the server room with flashlights to get the first machine. It took us awhile to find it in the dark. Then we took the elevator to the 20th floor. The emergency lights were the only power on. I went to the bathroom with a flashlight, which was surreal, given how many times I have gone to that bathroom. Our floor was pretty much how we left it. We had a checklist of smaller items to retrieve and went through it. While we did this, Steven went around the floor to water all the plants. For some reason this almost made me want to cry. While it seems like a trivial gesture, he seemed to take pleasure in keeping them alive while we were away. I gave him my spritzer bottle and told him he could keep it if he wanted. We packed the machines in boxes on our two luggage carts. Around them we put family photos and documents for our colleagues. I changed into my good sneakers, which were still under my desk. We went to a corner conference room to take one last look back at The Pit. It was lit with floodlights as the workers continued their jobs. Smoke was still rising from the remains of the towers. The emptiness was palpable. Dead palm trees lay in pieces in the WFC plaza.
We took the freight to the lobby, where we unpacked our boxes so they could check the serial numbers on the equipment. The next Merrill ferry was scheduled for 10 PM. (My boss was not so lucky on the previous excursion—they had to stay in the building for 12 hours.) We were hot from all the exercise and asked to wait on the dock. Steven escorted us out via several strange basement passageways and the WFC plaza. As we left he told us of his experience on the 11th. He was doing his job, helping people to get out of the Winter Garden (the big glass atrium) when the North Tower collapsed. An older man was having trouble running when the atrium’s glass started to fall. A big piece landed on him and sliced his body in half. Steven seemed haunted by this image. We gave him what encouragement we could and thanked him profusely. On the dock, we opened our bottles of wine to celebrate being alive.
To our surprise, a ferry stopped at 9 PM to pick us up. They were on their way to Jersey City, and had noticed us on the dock. We rode to Jersey, then up to 38th St. again, remarking on how surprisingly easy the expedition had been. We ordered a car to pick us up at the ferry terminal, then went back to the bunker to pick up our coats. The car dropped us off at Spring and 6th, where a shuttle drove us through the checkpoints down to Chambers. Then we wheeled the carts six or so blocks more to 222 Broadway with the computers, arriving at about 10 PM.
When we went into our new “command center” (a converted conference room), our head programmer Inna burst out laughing as we unpacked the boxes. Turns out one of the machines we retrieved was the wrong one. We should have spent more time in the server room with the flashlights. I was mortified. We all burst into giggles, including our boss Anne, who happened to call on my cell phone as we made the discovery. Marina, whose cup is usually half full, said, “Think of it this way. We got one good machine out of the building.” Thank God for Marina. I had a coffee and sat back down to continue working on the data.
I should tell a little about the mood at the office. People are exhausted and stressed, especially management, HR people, and tech support. Everybody looks thin. There is concern about the air quality in the “new” building. Many of us are having sinus problems and have lost our taste buds. We think about all the pulverized things we are breathing: asbestos, concrete, drywall, heavy metal, carpets, computers, plastics, human beings. People burst out crying occasionally in their cubicles. Merrill has had to change its bereavement policy. In the past, we were allowed a week for loss of immediate family, and used personal days for other loved ones. Now, with so many memorials to attend, they are allowing paid half days for loss of friends.
I am happy to say that I have lost no one close to me. I was especially worried about one client at Oppenheimer Funds (South Tower WTC), with whom I have a friendly phone relationship. He emailed me the other day asking for data. I figured if he is ready for data, then we really have to get our act together. I was very relieved to hear from him.
Over the weekend, we have been a small group, me and my three Russian colleagues. We found a place around the corner, Blini Hut, where they can order in Russian over the phone. Our “command center” is now a pantry with Russian pastries and laughter. Last night Marina came to me with a long question. Unfortunately she asked it in Russian and didn’t realize it! Tanya, sitting next to me, about laughed until she peed her pants.
We had a meeting in Princeton about a week ago for the entire New York research division. Everybody was hugging each other, dispensing with business propriety, glad to see each other again for the first time. Andy, our big boss, had trouble speaking to us through his tears. It must have been a tremendous relief to him to see all 300+ of his New York employees in the same room. He recounted his experience of the 11th, and could barely talk about seeing all the emergency vehicles driving into the scene as we walked away. We now can imagine what happened to many of these people. I remembered the last time I attended a big research lunch like this—it was about two years ago in Windows on the World. I remember looking down at the World Financial Center and thinking how small our buildings looked. Now, they dominate the skyline.
In general, I am feeling better. Tired, but less numb. Last week I was flipping channels and stumbled across the New York Philharmonic doing the Brahms Requiem. It was a huge, earnest, and skilled choir, and the soloists sang the work from memory. It struck me that these were people grieving for their own city. I remembered how much Mom used to love the Requiem, and how we listened to it after she died. I found myself glad for her that she did not live to see this happen. I missed her, and all the dead people I loved. And as the Requiem finished, without applause, I just sat and sobbed.
Hug each other and stay well.
What would a real writer have done with these letters? Would she have turned them into a real essay to submit for real publication in the days following the attacks, when the reading appetite was still there, when people were still hungry for information? If I were a real writer, would I have taken my experience as impetus to report it to the world, to do my part that way, instead of the way I did, which was to double down on my finance career and stick it to the terrorists through database retrieval?
Was I a writer at all? Why did I quit fiction and take up photography that fall?
On that surreal day, on my long walk away from what was left of the towers, I had some time to think, and the one thought that kept coming back was what am I doing here? These are not my people. I am an artist. I resolved to plot my exit from the financial industry; there was surely some other way to make enough money in New York City. I needed to be with my people. The rich were under attack. Why was I hanging out with them?
But then a few days went by and I had not seen my colleagues. We had been separated in the chaos on the street, and we were worried. When we finally saw each other again, we hugged like family. What I hadn’t known, walking away from the horror, was that these people would become the only people who actually understood what I had experienced. We were bonded through the shorthand—the knowing nods, the permission to laugh at it. We were alive and we felt alive. We were jumpy when planes flew over, when sirens went by. Other people, if they felt like it, could talk about other things. We talked about only this. Maybe these were my people after all. Maybe a writer is never what I was.
Time brings us back to who we really are, if we live long enough. I returned to writing. I put aside the camera. I lost most of the pictures, which were film, not digital. But the hard looking helped. That imagery is lodged in the compost of memory, and leeches into my fiction, including three of the stories in The Artstars. Two take place in the days and months after the attacks, and borrow liberally from my own experience at ground zero and at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I sat in a room alone and thought about New York City and didn’t write a whole lot. And one takes place in the innocence of 1999, with scenes of corporate art in a fictional Merrill Lynch, and a long nod to the top of the Twin Towers, a place where I have positive memories.
I don’t worry too much about my right to write about it, not these days. I worry more about how to do it. The 9/11 attacks are so iconic they easily become cliché, especially for people who have no firsthand memory of them. This was my biggest fear, as I did my best to defamiliarize the imagery, to let my characters react in unpredictable ways, to pull back from the maudlin or cloying without disrespecting the traumatized and grieving. It has been one of my biggest tonal challenges to date.
Here are some blog posts I wrote in 2005 while I was first drafting these stories. I forgot how hard I was thinking about this. In these essays I considered my narrative responsibility and craft concerns as well, particularly defamiliarization as a technique for bringing tired narrative alive, and consideration of 9/11 as an element of setting.
One night in my beloved writer’s group, one of the younger members brought a piece that used a reference to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a kind of time marker. I’ve noticed this in younger adults, particularly ones not based in New York City. It’s a reference point. Do you remember it? Where were you when it happened? I was in my sixth grade class and the teacher came and announced it. I was asleep and I woke up and my mother was crying. Or, most recently, among my community college students: I don’t remember it. I was a baby. I was a fetus. I was not yet even an idea.
Some of these younger adults have been through some stuff. Some are war veterans. Some are barely surviving depression and addiction. They have lost friends and family members. They understand trauma. Just not this trauma.
I spoke up in my writer’s group and suggested that some readers might have personal associations with 9/11 that make it more than just a time marker. Then I found myself saying words I had never spoken before: “Like me. I’m a 9/11 survivor.” My intent was to speak briefly; my point was to consider the distraction this might introduce to otherwise cohesive prose. But the words, once out of my mouth, startled me.
I don’t consider myself a survivor. Maybe more of a witness. The next day I mentioned it to my husband. “Last night I said something I never said before. I called myself a 9/11 survivor.” He laughed.
“What else would you call yourself?”
Then I made the same confession to my dear friend Lisa on the phone. She, too, laughed.
Both of these individuals spent the morning of 9/11 worried sick about me, in parts of New York City that were not in the middle of the mess.
I spent the morning of 9/11 losing my innocence. And trying not to look at something awful that was happening all around me. And trying to reach my poor husband at home in Brooklyn. And walking home to him, the long way.
At my recent finance job in Portland, Maine, we had regular fire drills. Unlike all the corporate jobs I had had in New York, there was no posted schedule or warning for these drills. The siren jolted me out of my chair and made my heart race. The specially-appointed marshals donned bright-colored vests and carried clipboards. We all walked down the fire stairs and into the parking lot.
I was the only one panting and clutching my purse. Everyone else had left their stuff upstairs. Even their coats—and this is Maine. What could it be but a drill?
And then we took measures that did not exist at my job in 2001. We all found our managers and were checked on a clipboard. There was protocol for contacting the ones who did not check in. Every single person was accounted for, on a cold New England morning, then we filed back inside. The first time, it took a good hour for me to stop shaking in my desk chair.
Marina, one of my old New York colleagues, recently confessed to me that she has not been to see the memorial at Ground Zero. She’s not ready to do that. And my dear friend Lisa just went for the first time. She called me from the site, weeping. I have been several times. I find it calming, looking down into the flowing black abyss. The white noise of the water, the opposite of that chaotic day. Lisa said she sat and meditated there. She felt what the people must have felt who were trapped. Fear, yes, but also love. That was the message the people trapped above the flames consistently sent out to their families, recorded on countless voicemails. In case I didn’t say it today, I love you. I’m sorry if I don’t see you again. I love you. That’s all. I love you.
When I told Lisa about my surprise writer’s group confession, she didn’t just laugh. That’s not her style. She probed too. “So you’re just figuring that out?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you think you’ve ever processed it?”
But maybe I have been. I just haven’t been talking about it. I haven’t been writing essays about it, not until now. But there it has been, in so much of my fiction. My characters, like me, are full of nervous laughter and cling to teddy bears for comfort. Their focus is on the surreality, not the sadness.
“Did you ever grieve?” Lisa asked me.
Not exactly. But process, yes. With fiction. Obliquely. With liberal comedy. Perhaps, to some of the real survivors, my “processing” is rude too.
Once a prospective literary agent objected to my stories about 9/11. She thought it was a cheap symbol I was drumming up. Perhaps it was. She wanted me to cut those stories from my collection. Like Marina, I wasn’t ready to do that. She did not become my agent.
Survivor. The word alone seems like a cheap symbol. Like going through something bigger than a long, dusty walk home and a month without an office. So it’s not a word I tend to use. “I was there.” Those are words I tend to use.
Writer. There’s another one. I have an urge to describe what I see, to peek inside the hearts of people who are both me and not-me. But when people ask me what I do, I tell them I work with databases. I work in finance. Or I teach. The real writers are the ones over there, the ones with big projects or big experiences, the ones with all of the authority. Yeah, maybe that’s what’s at the heart of it. Authority.
In the late nights following the attacks, stooped over my computer in the kitchen, I penned two letters to family and friends. People were worried, and they craved information that wasn’t filtered through politicians or news cameras. They had seen the image of the ball of flame over and over. But what was on TV looked too much like movie special effects. What was it really like?
I still read the letters sometimes, for their immediacy. They are full of raw, ugly, writing and reflect my sleep-deprivation. They are not “processed.” Perhaps that is what I like about them. Here is the first:
Dear family and friends:
I just thought I’d tell you what has happened for us in case you are wondering. Feel free to forward this note as we do not have addresses handy for everybody.
Both Jim and I are fine and we have heard from most friends and co-workers that they are fine also. Phone service has been bad. Since we were not able to dial out on Sept 11 and 12, you may not have heard from us directly. We figure that the lines were better used by people in worse states than us, so please do not feel like we are ignoring you. The worst of our injuries is I had a terrible headache from the smoke.
I went to work normally on 9/11 and arrived at the World Trade Center at about 8:05 AM. I went to the farmer’s market in WTC plaza to buy some produce. Then I walked through the WTC concourse and stopped in a clothing store to try on a jacket. My dawdling got me to the World Financial Center at about 8:40. I chatted with colleagues and logged into my computer and uploaded our data for the morning. Then my colleague told me he got a call from London about the first WTC tower being hit. I was laughing—I thought it was a hoax, then saw it on the newswire. We ran to the windows and saw emergency vehicles downstairs, but could not see the WTC. I work (worked?) in the Merrill Lynch north tower of the World Financial Center (WFC), which is the one with the stepped pyramid (like a Mayan pyramid) on top, between the American Express tower (dome on top) and the Mercantile Exchange. You may see this on the news, it is right next to the big glass atrium, very close to the Hudson river. As these buildings are designed to handle a “normal” fire, we did not panic. An office nearby had a TV, and there we saw the second plane hit WTC 2. At that point we decided to leave. I notified whoever was around and grabbed my purse. I was glad I did that because I had a cell phone and a blackberry and was able to contact people (eventually) and let them know I was safe, also find out who else was OK. We walked 20 floors down the fire stairs and out the turnstiles to the street. Everyone was very calm and I never dreamed I would have reason to see those fire stairs.
Outside we were instructed to move toward the Hudson River. I did not have to be told twice. I had lost most of my group at that point but stuck with two men who work next to me. I heard later that the head of Merrill global research, who is a Vietnam War vet, was running around the whole floor, shouting for us to evacuate. I presume that he was the last person on our floor to leave, and I saw him on the street. I have no reason to believe that anyone in my immediate area was gravely injured. We tried to call people on cell phones and found that only the blackberry pager worked. I lent my blackberry to those around me who needed to contact people.
The scene outside was the stuff of nightmares. My building is about a block from the WTC but we made a bigger distance before stopping to figure out what to do. We stopped just south of Stuyvesant High and looked at the WTC. We had a very good view of the north WTC tower and the gaping hole. People were crying and praying and staring at it in disbelief, and looking around for specific workmates. I wondered if we were supposed to check in with someone, but finally realized that there was too much chaos, and my job was to remain safe, contact loved ones and help others to do so, and get out of the way of the many emergency vehicles racing toward the WTC. We could see the fire inside very clearly, and people leaning out of the windows, which were apparently broken. Anyone who works in a tall building knows not to break the windows in a fire. Especially the WTC, where people have been through a big fire before. Seeing the broken windows, I knew that these people either had no choice, or they had broken in the impact. About the time people were jumping from the top of the north tower, I realized I could not look any more or I would pass out. The last thing they needed was another casualty!
I walked around the park around Stuy High and then down the Hudson toward my building looking for three of my colleagues. I went as far as the Hoboken Ferry Terminal, outside the Winter Garden, but then realized I was too close for comfort. I figured my missing colleagues had probably gone to a specific apartment in Tribeca, and I decided to get as far away from the area as I could on foot. I was afraid that the bridges to Brooklyn might be targets so I just walked north. When the towers fell I was in Tribeca near the Travelers building. Seven WTC was between me and the big cloud, so I did not have to run, nor did I so much as get dust on my shoes. People were looking at the buildings fall, many praying out loud. A Muslim man came out of a grocery store and fell to his knees crying, then put his head to the dusty sidewalk to pray. I was feeling faint so I did not turn to look or stop walking. I kept thinking of Lot’s wife, and kept trying to find shade to walk in. As I walked I continued to email people on the blackberry whose addresses I knew, and kept trying to use the cell phone. I did not want to go crazy on the cell phone because I knew others probably needed the lines worse than me at that point. When I got to Houston I went east, and decided to go to the Lotus Club, a bar on the lower east side belonging to some friends of ours. There I was able to call Jimmy on the cell phone and he was beside himself with relief. I sat in the bar and watched it unfold on the television, same as everybody else. I heard that people were walking over the Williamsburg bridge but I was afraid of encountering a mob scene. People panicking on a bridge is not my idea of fun. So I sat tight there for several hours, leaving only to try to find an ATM that was working, as I realized the $3 in my purse was probably not enough for the various needs I might have later. I eventually found cash in a gas station.
At about 2:30 I walked across the Williamsburg bridge into Brooklyn. I was upwind of the smoke and it was no longer crowded. It felt like a refugee scene from a movie. There were a few Manhattan-bound cars on the bridge, I presume doctors and such. People were looking back at the cloud of smoke in disbelief. At the other side there was a big crowd of Hasidim passing out water to those coming off the bridge. I don’t know why, but seeing them made me want to cry. I guess it made me realize I was back in Brooklyn finally and that much closer to home. I walked another 30 minutes or so into Bushwick Brooklyn and caught the G train home. (The G is the only train that does not go into Manhattan at all.)
When I got to my neighborhood at about 5:00, the smoke and dust was pretty bad. There was a layer of ash all over the cars. For those of you who remember Mt. St. Helens erupting, the dust looked a lot like that. I took as many pills as I could for my headache and hugged Jim and the animals and then tried as best I could to get news from my immediate colleagues. Unfortunately I did not have their phone numbers and I had to improvise. I was especially worried about Inna and Tanya who had not yet made it to work. By about 10:00 PM I had heard that everybody got out OK. Lesson learned: get everybody’s emergency info, then DON’T leave it in my desk! At that point I started attempting to send blackberry messages to colleagues in Sales and Trading, but by that time the server had gone down.
So the gist is I was very close, but the only difference between me and the average American is that I saw some of it in person rather than on TV. I am very glad to note that the media seems to have chosen to keep some of the more frightening images from broadcast. I imagine a lot of children have been watching the coverage. I saw people jumping, and had a particularly clear view of a man in a blue business suit. This hit me hard for some reason because from where I was standing in the park, he looked exactly like just about every guy I work with. From our vantage point it was overwhelmingly clear that people just like us were trapped up there. And at that point, I was convinced that some of my colleagues might be among them.
The next day I was nothing but numb. I spoke to friends and family as much as I could but I was not able to make much sense of it. We saw fighter planes overhead, and Jim saw some reconnaissance aircraft make a sharp left turn right over our house. Of course we watched the news. I went out to buy groceries, and my blackberry went off, reminding me to attend a conference in the WTC scheduled for noon Wednesday. This was one of many chilling reminders that I had been ‘walking between the raindrops’ and was very lucky to be home with my husband in Brooklyn.
Now, to rebuild. As you all know, the tragedy has left behind a logistical nightmare for the businesses that have been displaced. People are numb with shock and grief, and even if there are perfect disaster plans in place, one has to be very rational to carry them out. Nobody is completely rational. (Think about it: more than 50,000 people looked up and saw bodies falling from the sky. We’re talking post traumatic stress on a very large scale.) There is simply not enough alternate office space in the area to go around. Merrill Lynch has 9000 employees (three still missing) at the World Financial Center, who are now displaced. They shut off the ventilation in the building, which saved it from the toxic dust and fumes, but may have damaged computers and stored data in the heat. Even if our computers are presumably intact, we are not allowed in the area to retrieve them. Nor would it be appropriate for us to ask, since they are still trying to recover missing people in the rubble. So just buy more computers, right? Well, the demand is huge, considering how many were lost. There is no way the manufacturers can build them all quickly. The parts may not be available. And the US government understandably has first dibs on newly manufactured computers, so I am afraid our little research group is way, way down the queue. They have offered us office space in London, but I am not willing to go to London (without my husband) in the middle of a war. So work from home, right? Well, your home has to be wired for it, and the wires have to be working! Not to mention the power...colleagues of mine in lower Manhattan have none. So I work in an industry entirely dependent on phones and computers, none of which are reliable or even available. To top it off, if they do find space for people, it often means going from a twenty minute commute to a three hour commute. Naturally, problems like bad phones and no electricity and long commutes are GOOD problems to have in a situation like this. Meanwhile, our clients from elsewhere are confused and feel powerless and need the data that we provide for them. This is an exercise in patience and managing expectations. The process of going back to work has been surprisingly stressful for me. Tomorrow and Thursday I go to Princeton for department meetings and such. I’m not too crazy about getting on the subway, but at least I’ll feel like I’m doing something. The train ride to Princeton is a pleasant two hours through lovely wetlands. It will give me a chance to think.
I’m a little freaked out by all the flag waving and God-Bless-America-singing going on here. It reminds me of San Diego during the Gulf War. Remember when everybody kept saying, ‘Do you support the troops?’ I always thought that was a weird question. I never had anything against the troops, but information was so sketchy that I wasn’t quite sure what they were being asked to do over there. And the majority of San Diegans were naively trusting of our government to do the right thing. To question our government was downright tasteless, because so many people knew service men and women in the Gulf. This is a similar scenario. Everyone seems so gung-ho about going into a war, while families are still mourning the lost workers. I went through a list on Bloomberg today of the missing. It took me two hours to read a simple list of names. Five thousand people is a lot of people.
I keep thinking about the sign they used to put out in front of the World Trade Center every Christmas. Big 3-D letters as tall as a person: PEACE ON EARTH. I always loved seeing that sign in the snow. Unlike other NYC holiday decorations, this one spoke to everybody, all religions and nationalities. It will be a very difficult winter without it.
It is surreal to me to read this nearly two decades later and feel the feelings come up, as raw and fresh as the night I drank cold vodka in my kitchen while writing it. I don’t write with alcohol anymore. I don’t work on Wall Street anymore. I don’t live in New York anymore. I’m a middle aged lady with different ambitions and obsessions. But the feelings come right back, like no time has elapsed.
And images come back too, things I didn’t write about here. Things I never wrote about, but the images are fresh. The old woman walking very slowly across the Williamsburg bridge—with a walker!—because it was the only way to get over the river—and the young man helping her. The man on the G Train who had sweat right through his entire dress shirt, staining it with running ink from a note in his breast pocket. My colleague Shawn grabbing my head to keep me from looking up at the towers, just as a large group of people held hands and leapt to their deaths. Somehow he knew I shouldn’t see that. I don’t know if he was right or wrong.
But maybe that’s just it. I saw stuff. That’s all. Just seeing. Where do I get off writing about 9/11? Making fiction about it? Funny fiction to boot? When all I did was witness?
Or, is the fiction not as funny as I think it is? Is it nervous laughter, like my own, in the moments just after the towers were hit?
It’s telling that that was my first reaction. This laughter is not about tragedy-plus-time. It didn’t take me a decade to learn to laugh at it. The building next door to me was on fire and a plane was crashing into the other one and I was laughing. I still feel guilty about that. But it was beyond absurd. I was losing my innocence. That is the way my body reacted.
When I write about it now, I’m not laughing. I’m blinking back something else. It’s still in my body, all of it, whatever all of that was.
Thanks for reading this. I will continue this discussion in a future blog post, and include the second letter I sent to my people, which discusses the aftermath, my time in the dust of ground zero, and the audacity of claiming it as subject matter for the short stories in The Artstars.
Leslie Samuels was one of my dearest friends in the world. I am still processing her death, which surprised me (and many other fans/friends) in the fall of 2018. She was my neighbor, collaborator, camping buddy, and pretend sister. I’ll write more about her work when I’m more ready. In the meantime, here are some photos of her performances, which took place in Chicago, San Diego, and Williamsburg Brooklyn.
Her mind and facility with the live image have been a major inspiration for my stories about artists. I am very grateful. My story collection is dedicated to her.
If you were in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1990’s, you might have been lucky enough to witness (or be in) the amazing performances of the Immersionist movement. They took place in and among the old factory buildings, particularly on the South Side, which has now been turned into high rise apartments and a pretty groovy (but fancy!) park. There has been talk among the practitioners, now scattered far and wide, about a centralized archive of the documentation. This history is largely lost, which is one reason I am compelled to make it the subject/setting of my fiction. What resonates most for me is the movement’s connection to sound, light, and putting the body in some kind of danger.
Here are a few resources:
Gallerist Ethan Pettit has blogged on the movement here. He includes links to other resources.
Facebook users can see a small gallery here put together by Pettit.
Marcin Ramocki has made a documentary film that captures that Williamsburg moment. Excerpts here. It premiered at MOMA in 2009.
Ebon Fisher and Ethan Pettit have posted a flickr gallery documenting Flytrap, a 1991 warehouse piece.
Here is one of the venues, before its demolition: The Mustard Factory
James Barr and I have been working on some new audio pieces in his mad scientist lab, affectionately known as Tank Farm Studio. Some are too large for my Audio page, so I'll post here until I can figure that out. This short fiction piece, "The Anatolian Girl," was originally published by The Bridport Prize Anthology. Big thanks to the engineer and maker of sound sculpture! If you have fifteen minutes to spare, I hope you enjoy the listen.
Stacey D'Erasmo on the writing moment when your project falls apart:
"Your conscious plan dissolves...and the reason it is dissolving is that your subconscious is beginning to take over, and to shove your conscious out of the way...and your subconscious is certainly smarter than you are."
D'Erasmo's little book, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between is a resource I highly recommend for writers of narrative. In it, she analyzes ways to create connection between characters, between characters and reader, between author and reader, riffing on the advice of EM Forster: "only connect." The connections she cites are familial and romantic, of course, but also the sharing of secrets, and the commitment of violence, and the culpability of standing by while others act. In other words, the intimacy she presents is not the intimacy one thinks of immediately upon hearing the word.
She addresses, among other things, the problem of cliche and stereotype in written love, in a pop-culture environment where intimacy is practically a commodity, stating, "It's all too easy to throw a little intimacy, especially damaged intimacy, at a narrative to get it to seem serious and literary. Like corn syrup, it fills stuff out and makes it tasty." The problem is one of creating distance from our faith in intimacy as it has been sold to us. In her words, "piety of any kind is never especially good for art. Characters can, and should, believe in all kinds of things, passionately and with brilliant wrongheadedness, but the book is, generally speaking, up to something else, something broader, something less sure of itself."
She uses as inspiration not only works of literature, but also visual art, most notably the photos of Nan Goldin, whose intimate gaze is always a heavy presence: "Goldin invites us to see the men and women she loves as she sees them, to occupy her position as loving eye...We feel, perhaps, closer to, or attracted to, these subjects, but we probably feel closest psychically to Goldin; we understand what her desire feels like to her."
D'Erasmo's book is part of the wonderful Graywolf Press series, The Art of, edited by Charles Baxter, each of which explores a single aspect of craft.
Speaking of Marvels is a frequently-updated blog highlighting poetry chapbooks and novellas. What I love about both is that no one can mistake them for a commercial enterprise. In the nineties I ran a chapbook imprint, Big Fat Press, publishing poetry and experimental/performance texts. In my case, it was a purely homegrown venture. I printed linoleum block covers, did all the editorial work myself, and printed the guts of the books on the sly at my Wall Street day job. Binding the books was a painstaking sewing and/or gluing project, long hours in front of the TV. The authors distributed the books at their readings, giving them a little beer money on the road. The only limitations were time and my ability to stay awake.
I'm not the only one to take on this kind of project. Now, with the advent of e-readers, the options are bigger. The power is with the people. And often, at this smaller scale, we are able to witness the early, beautifully-wrought efforts of emerging writers, before the world and the marketplace hears of their work.
Speaking of Marvels interviewed me late last year, for my novella, The Beginning of the End of the Beginning, published for Kindle by Ploughshares Solos. I was grateful that they approached me, which introduced me to an awesome resource, profiling the likes of Anders Carlson-Wee, Meg Pokrass, and Molly Gaudry.
One of the artists I mention explicitly, if not by name, in my fiction is Tehching Hsieh, a performance art hero. I am deeply moved by the Time Clock piece in particular (see video below), not for its feat of endurance, but for the poetry of the act. It is a powerful metaphor for the ways we compromise our bodies and our lives to regularize our work, our livelihoods, our accountability, etc. The time-lapse film of the year of punching the clock is mesmerizing. And strangely, he appears to mark the hours with a degree of joy. I love this piece.
About twenty years ago I was talking to a poet friend about one of my favorite fiction subjects: preacher's kids. When she found out I'm a preacher's kid, she said, "So you're like a white, straight, female James Baldwin."
After a laugh at the absurdity of her comment, I went home and started rereading Baldwin. I had encountered his fiction in undergraduate school, but under the pressure of the lit class, hadn't fully felt the work yet. Boy, did that change. Go Tell it on the Mountain is the model preacher's kid novel, and its territory on the knife edge between sacred and profane moved me deeply, as did his brimstone prose. But I found myself responding even more to another thread in his stories, that of the artist working in the artist's community, finding chosen family, battling the demons of the artist--ego, addiction, loneliness, failure to communicate. Over time, I have become more and more drawn to this subject matter in my own work as well.
Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is often taught in creative writing workshops, with good reason. I find it technically incredible in its verbal rendering of the nonverbal beauty in art--specifically music. It also is a perfect example of showing a character, in this case the narrator, learn empathy through suffering. For readers new to Baldwin, I highly recommend this story as an entry point. Here is the narrator finally noticing the work of his musician brother, and, I believe, Baldwin's meditation on the life of the artist:
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
Trial and error. Isn't that everything? And risking failure?
Baldwin was a powerful speaker also, and his wisdom on the United States' deepest wound--our legacy of slavery--has been quoted much in recent months, as old pain has resurfaced and found its way to the streets. I highly recommend reading his nonfiction on this subject. It feels prescient, though it isn't really, as the wounds are hundreds of years old. I recommend The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, was published in 2010, which contains a diverse selection of his speeches, essays, and literary criticism.
I am deeply inspired by his views on the role and journey of the artist. The practice is vital, spiritual, and in service to the world, not the artist. There is a profound sense of duty in what he did. (Is it the preacher's kid?) Listen to him talk on the subject in the links below. "The poets--by which I mean all artists--are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesmen don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only the poets."
You may already know I'm a junkie for artist's process. It's my primary muse for fiction. I have a soft spot for sculpture and the tangibility of getting up in there with one's materials. Especially if the materials are transformed by fire!
If you've never seen aluminum sand-casting, check this out. It's a concept similar to the making of sand candles on the beach. Often a one-off project can be made by carving a piece of styrofoam, embedding it in a bucket of sand (WITH proper ventilation--styrofoam vapor is no joke!) and pouring in liquid aluminum to burn away the styrofoam and take on its shape.
This little foundry can be made at home! Recycling! Fun!
And if there were a tin can on the table, she would have chowed down on that, no doubt!
My esteem for Lynda Barry is no secret--I attended her class, Writing the Unthinkable, years ago and blogged about it a couple times here and here. I also picked up her method of journaling in list format, which I shared later on in this post, Fifty Views of the Pacific Northwest, Tin House Workshops, Family, Gardens, Walks, and Critters.
Work that I started in that class (which is not a workshop), has since seen publication, though that was never the goal of the class. The class was about accessing what she calls the "image" and rendering it well. The image is a powerful thing.
What sticks with me, in addition to her flair for the concrete, is her understanding of the way writing is rooted in the body. It is an activity we do with our hands. There is a connection between the mark on the page and the composition of an image in the brain. She wrote Cruddy with a brush and ink. This shows me patience and a trust for the connection between hand and spirit. Since that class, I have very rarely composed at the keyboard. The friction of pen on paper is my preference. The words come out better without all that percussion. Yes, they're slower. But they're better.
Since I took the class, I have encountered and been inspired by the work of several people who were also changed by her tutelage. Austin Kleon, newspaper poet and encourager of creatives is one. Heather Sellers, writer of fiction, memoir, and self-help books for writers is another.
How to keep the Lynda Barry magic going after the class is over? Or if you can't squeeze your way into the class anytime soon? There are so many ways!
1. Read her Tumblr, The Near-Sighted Monkey. She uses it to share her syllabus with her comics students in Wisconsin. Pretend to be one of them! Do the exercises! In crayon! I check in frequently to improve my mood.
2. Read her books, in particular What it Is, which is as close to her class on the page as it gets. Collage, brush drawing, and awesome instruction.
3. Check out the Lynda Barry Channel on Youtube. Videos made by Barry, while she's snowed in!
4. Watch and listen below. Some of her wonderful shtick, followed by a slideshow of her collages and comics, as well as her study of drawings by children and scientists.
I write fiction about performance artists because they feel like such easy targets. When I see an easy target for ridicule and parody, I immediately want to push for more empathy. What do people think of when I say "performance artist?" Is it narcissistic monoperformers in love with the sound of their own voices? I have been deeply moved by performance art, and that is the feeling I want to convey. And it can be pretty badass, rowdy, and fun, not to mention smart. And often illegal, like the performances in my stories.
One of my early influences was Survival Research Laboratories, based in San Francisco, who have been doing machine-based performance since the 1980s. Below are a few videos. I love the titles. Enjoy!
Swans are playing Brooklyn tonight, and I'm not there! But I'll certainly blog about another one of my influences, percussionist Thor Harris. He embodies the creative resourcefulness I aspire to.
Harris is a survivor of depression, which I am not, but I am deeply moved by this video from the Mental Health Network in which he describes coming out on the other side. "The secrecy is so potentially lethal," he says, regarding going public about his mental health issues. His keys to survival: exercise, accepting love, and creative expression, in particular, "making things." This guy invented the freak flag and flies it all the time. And there are dogs everywhere, so he had me at hello.
He is a proponent of keeping down the overhead, like all my favorite creatives. Check out his advice for living like a king, with pragmatic morsels like "7. Learn to fix things. Tons of great books and youtube vids on fixing anything. Or ask an old dude. People used to fix things. No shit."
How can you not love this dude, especially when he says his key to success has been cold-calling the musicians he likes and asking if he can play drums for them. Amanda Palmer, and Bill Callahan (aka Smog), and of course Swans, among others. What a diverse list!
And of course, the music itself. Here's a morsel of Swans. It's religious.