Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Frank McCourt Taught Me...and Alienated Youth Part Huit, I suppose

One of the lucky experiences I've had as a writer was getting to take a class from Frank McCourt, and as busy and sought after as the man was (he was writing Teacher Man at that time), he made time for a one-on-one with each writer in the class, which anyone who's ever taught will tell you, it's generous.

The thing about a great teacher is when you're talking to him or her, you come up with stuff that's smarter and wiser than you would've on your own, but somehow this great teacher makes you think it's nothing to do with them and everything to do with you. So I wish I could promise you this were word-for-word how the conversation went but this is how-- i promise you-- I remember it.

"Is it honest?" he asked pointing to my thick manuscript sitting on the desk between us.

"I think so."

He looked at me without a word, eyes narrowing a little.

I thought for a minute and came up with this but to tell you the truth, it seems more like it came from him than from me: "It seems like when you're writing a memoir you have a choice, you can tell this story"---diving my hand in at desk level "and that story is honest enough and if people read it they might even say 'ya that's honest.' But you know there's this other story and it's here," I said, marking the level at our knees this time, "and if you dare to write that story, that's really the honest story."

Frank liked this. He clapped his hands like I came up with it, but the honest story is...the more honest story...is that I wouldn't have come up with it if I hadn't been sitting in his class all week.

Which takes us back to mill town. Mill town woke me up in the middle of the night last night. The knee-level story of mill town. Yes, I've been telling an honest story but there's more to it, and last night I thought, I need to write that story, the story of how the depression in each of my now three-member family, the depression we staved off in the city with friends and urban delights, came into bloom that winter in mill town, that all the things we were avoiding in each other, we could no longer avoid. But then I thought, "It's just a blog! Go back to sleep! Just write about Tanya and Bruce and that class stuff." And just before I fell asleep again, some part of me continued to protest: "But that's just half of it."

Writing memoir, you're always forced to make these choices of what you will tell and what you won't. But I always tell my students: If you want to write a powerful memoir--one that people will remember, that they won't be able to put down--you're going to have to give something of yourself that you don't want to give. You don't have to give everything(in fact, tell-all memoirs can be just too much information, in my opinion), but chances are when you're writing, the writing is going to take you to this place where you're either going to glide along that desk-level route or you're going to have to go to your knees and give up that one sacred, private piece of you.

Frank knew this, and he let me think I came up with it. And that's a pretty good trick.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Sept

(This story starts with the post "Alienated Youth is My Drink")
House hunting in milltown had been a debacle. I'm guessing in retrospect that my parents must have had a somewhat limited budget as they still owned our city house, but the main issue was supply. There just weren't that many "nice" houses in "good" neighborhoods. To me, many of the houses looked fine, but my parents muttered on the way back to the Realtor's car things about "taste levels" and "gaudy" and "dreadful wallpaper." It was 1978, so shag carpeting was pretty much the norm in milltown.

There just were no turn-of-the-century craftsmans with good woodwork waiting to be snatched up. So, with time running out, they settled on a Spanish villa perched above the bay where the ferries steamed in and out. My stepfather made it clear that under normal circumstances, they would never have purchased this house with its wrought iron banisters, swag lamps, frosted mirrors, and an intercom that served every room of the house.

But while the weather held in September, the house seemed sort of exotic to me. As was my lifelong habit, I pretended I was in another place. How often had I blurred my vision to morph the modest skyline of Vancouver into that of Manhattan? And now, I was in old LA circa Polanski's Chinatown, making the white arches of our two-car carport seem just about right and not the total clash with the thick evergreen landscape that they were.

But when I invited Tanya and company over for the first time in late October, my parents' position that the house was an embarrassment trumped my delusion that I was in a Hollywood bungalow and I worried that they too would see the place for the tasteless exhibit of pretense that it surely was.

"Is this it?" Tanya asked, incredulous, as we drove up.

"Yes, I know," I said, hanging my head.

"God, the girl's loaded," she said to Shirley in the front.

Again, the complicated class stuff. Tanya was reading "rich" in the same place where my parents read "tacky." And to further complicate matters, there was something new in Tanya's voice besides the usual disdain. When she said the word "loaded," she'd said it softly and -could this be right?-- with awe.

But as much as I could've really used a little awe and admiration from someone, especially Tanya, I couldn't enjoy this. I knew we weren't loaded and more than that, I didn't want to be admired for something that wasn't anything to do with me, and most of all, I didn't want to be set apart. I wanted to fit in.

So, even after Tanya oohed and aahhed her way through our house for the first time, I still kept the Trafalgar Ball (the deb thing) under wraps. I endured a lot of snarky remarks about how many weekends I spent over in the city, rather than let on to everything I was getting done over there--Waltz lessons, shopping for a long white dress (more about this later), the nibbling of cucumber sandwiches, etc.

Until one day, Tanya spotted the creamy invitation that had somehow made its way onto the kitchen counter.

She plucked the thing up and began to read aloud: "Your presence is requested at the... oh my god, what is this?" she asked, the tones of contempt and amazement so tightly intertwined I couldn't begin to parse out which was the most dominant.

"It's a.."

"It's a debutante ball? Isn't it? Oh my fucking god! Cinderella is going to the ball!"

I was preparing my defense but I needn't have. The conversation dissolved into a million questions from Tanya, sometimes her eyes narrowing but mostly they grew wide as I answered to the best of my knowledge everything she wanted to know about where it was, who was going, what I'd wear, how I'd gotten invited.

It turned out I held the key to the golden city where Tanya longed to live. The power that Tanya held so tightly, she passed to me. But it was a power that was so undeserved and ill-fitting, I would soon pass it back to her.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Six

So, the stage was set perfectly for my double life to begin. During the week, I was in milltown with Shirley, Marlene, Tanya, and Bruce, preparing to do Storybook Theatre for the children of union workers, mill managers, shopkeepers, grocery store clerks, and---driving just south of town--the First Nations kids who lived in a world cordoned off almost entirely from milltown. On most weekends, I went to Vancouver to attend all the pre-debutante ball events, of which I never spoke during the week.

How complicated is class? Well, it's complicated like this: in milltown i was excluded by everyone except the most marginalized kids because I was "rich," but the truth is while we weren't poor, we were not rich (no big family name or money. My stepfather made a good salary but that was it) and as much as my parents would've liked to have taken my deb ball invite as a sign of their personal standing in the world (and to a certain degree, I indulged this by not contradicting this line of thinking even though i knew even then it was false), the truth is the reason I was invited was simple and had nothing to do with my parents: I was friends with a girl who WAS from a "good family" and whose father was the Canadian Consulate to a country that won't be named.

If we went on my family's true credibility in the world or my "breeding," I would've been lucky to have been a janitor at the yacht club where the event was held. Yes, we lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood (before being deported to milltown) but that was the because of my STEPfather's job. My real father was, gasp, American and gasp, gasp, gasp, in the military; my real dad was also just about to join AA and was married to wife#4 and my stepfather was #3 for my mom;And, oh, neither of my real parents graduated from high school. So much for putting on airs.

But, I wasn't above working things any way I could. I was seventeen. I wanted--although I wasn't sure why--to go to the ball; I wanted to pretend I was from a "good" family and was secretly very pleased that my stepfather went to a good university, spoke French, and made enough money for us to live well. And, during the week,I wanted to drive around milltown in Tanya's black car, smoking cigarettes and looking for someone to buy us a mickey of Southern Comfort. Writing was most definitely not my drink in the complicated winter of 1978.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What We Write About (or, as I was taught to say, About Which We Write)

Welcome, new followers of Writing is My Drink! A little bit about the blog: Writing is My Drink focuses on my obsession with writing--with finding the right words, with a writer's development and career path, and all other matters to do with writing. The title for the blog was born out of my certainty that my obsessive interest in all things literary is directly connected to being the daughter of Don and Betty Draper, a couple interested in all things Rat Pack, which I discuss in the blog's starting entry We Admitted We Were Powerless Over the Spoken Word.

For last few days I've been thinking about the idea that we "choose" what we write about. I remember reading an interview in Poets and Writers magazine with several agents in which an agent remarked that she was surprised by some of the topics her writers "chose" to write about, which reminded me of how sometimes people would say things to me like it was interesting that I "chose to write about my divorce."

Chooses? Who's choosing? Yes, if I were commissioned to write an article about animal husbandry, I suppose I'd be choosing. But, I'm not sure memoirists choose. And, I'm not sure I want to read a memoir where the topic was chosen by the writer. My topic (divorce) took me by the throat and said: write me, write me now. And everything about how the book came to be published (with bizarre ease, almost as if it had a will of its own--i will tell that story in a future post)made me think that some topics are just fighting their way into the world and us writers are merely conduits with little more volition than drainpipes.

Which brings me back to the blog. Like I said the focus is all things literary and I thought I'd sort of be "choosing" topics one by one in the sort of dispassionate way one chooses what to make for dinner (or at least that's rather dispassionate for me, in fact rather dreaded). But since I rather dispassionately chose to write about the idea that most writers seem to have had a period of childhood illness, despair or alienation, Alienated Youth--my story of moving from a city to a mill town my senior year of high school--has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes, I'm like uh uh, the blog is about writing. And Alienated Youth is like write me, write me now.

If you're new to the blog, I invite you to go back and read from the beginning or at least start with Alienated Youth is My Drink post, so you'll be able to follow the ongoing story.

And, I invite you to tell me: What topics have chosen you? Or do you feel like you get to choose?

Sunday! I'm making a pie today! I'm choosing that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Cinq

Tanya had not so much friends as "cases," people who exemplified a certain cause, people who were moving targets in milltown. Shirley, Tanya's best friend, was Asian and working class; her parents owned Wong's Diner in the middle of the oft-deserted old downtown. When townfolk went out for Chinese, Shirley's dad cooked their dinner behind the old-style counter and Shirley's mom brought it to their naugahyde booth.

Unlike Tanya, Shirley didn't have much to say about all this. If Tanya brought up the times Shirley'd been called "Chink" by the the sons and daughters of the town's labour leaders, Shirley'd shrug and say something flatly like "yeah, the jerks," but then she'd go quiet and stare at the passing landscape out the window of the shotgun seat (Shirley's seat always, Tanya was quick to remind other passengers). Sometimes, she might tell a quick story, but this sort of talk was a bit more dangerous for Shirley than for Tanya. Tanya had big plans for graduation; she was hellbent for the city, for UBC, and beyond. And maybe Shirley would go too but she was also likely to inherit the diner in a few years. And, there was no city dad. Shirley's dad was no mystery; he was right there in the middle of town, pulling chop suey across a hot griddle.

Shirley seemed to like the way Tanya could parlay a raw deal into something full of meaning-- a bit like how Springsteen can turn a life of factory work lyrical--but a few feet outside of the cone of Tanya's vision, Shirley quickly morphed back into being an Asian high school girl in a town waiting for Wal-Mart to be created.

Before I moved to town, Tanya'd taken on another white girl, Marlene. Two factors seem to qualify Marlene for Tanya's caseload: She was skinny beyond the dictates of fashion and she was the adopted only child of the two oldest parents I'd ever seen. They lived on a busy street in a tiny, overheated house crammed with knickknacks, doilies and glass bowls of peppermints. Her gray parents were perpetually parked in front of Alex Trebek with their Swanson's TV dinners. Like Tanya, Marlene had a car, presumably because her parents were too old to drive anymore.

And then me, of course. I think we've established that I was pitiable enough make Tanya's list, pitiable the way we can pity an antelope that's wandered into a lion's den. I had no business being in this town and yet I was.

All this being said, it seemed to me that Tanya would want to take on Bruce, the gay boy in denial living deep in homophobia's heartland. Except. Except, Tanya sniffed the air with contempt when Bruce's name came up. Unlike Marlene, Shirley and I, Bruce was like Tanya. He was an alpha. A ruler among misfits. And so this is how I came to spend my senior year--the year when my city friends scampered from one grad party to the next---trying to please both Bruce and Tanya, both of whom I loved in a crazy sort of way.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aliented Youth Part Quatre

Drama class became my haven in mill town. After Tanya and Shirley took me under their protective wing, I'd gone in a short span of time from trembling and pathetic to nearly bad ass as everyone in the class was intimidated by cool handed Tanya and her exquisite timing on playing the Us-from-the-back-of-the-bus card, which--as White as I was--I now gained traction with as well.

All the misfits took drama. And even if my misfitting was that I'd spent my whole life trying to fit in somewhere else, I was still a misfit here. If it were the Breakfast Club, I was Molly Ringwald. Some kids still teased me about being "rich," but I was learning to keep some of my family's interest in golf and Masterpiece Theatre to myself. And, the pre-Debutante Ball tea parties were something I slunk over to the city to do on the weekends. No one need to know about any of that.

Sometime during fall term, we began rehearsals for Storybook Theatre, a cluster of sketches we'd soon take on a tour of the district's elementary schools, and that's when I started hanging out with Bruce. Bruce was funny and animated and turned everything into a comedy with his pitch-perfect impersonations of all of us. He was so funny and smart that he didn't seem like he could have even grown up in Crank City, and in fact, he'd grown up in a tiny village just north of town called Lantzville. His mother was a secretary at the mill and his dad died when he was a toddler, which made him all the more remarkable to me. I always wanted to be put in his improv group because there was this perpetual golden glow of fun around Bruce. The loudest laughter in the class invariably burst from the person he'd just whispered a secret to.

"And, of course, you know he's a fag," Tanya said as she peeled out of the NDSS parking lot, her eyes meeting mine in the rearview mirror.

If this story were taking place in 2010, the Tanya character would've said "queer" or "gay." If the story were taking place now, the Theo character would've said, "Uh, yeah!" But back to 1978....

"He is NOT!" I shot back. I had plenty of reasons for Bruce to be straight. One was that I'd just spent a decade in public schools learning that "fag" was the worst thing you could be and the other--well, you can see it already, Reader---I had designs on him for myself.

"There's nothing wrong with it," Tanya returned calmly as she turned into the MacDonald's parking lot. "Some people just are."

"But, Bruce isn't!"

Tanya shook her head. "Wanting things to be a certain way doesn't change anything. Life doesn't work that way. Haven't you learned that yet?"

"You're not right about everything, Tanya," I said sulkily.

"We'll see," she said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Alientated Youth Part Trois

I don't want to say Tanya was the first smart kid I met. I knew plenty of smart kids back at my city school. Kids who aced physics tests and math exams, who'd go onto be lawyers, valedictorians and engineers. But Tanya was the first friend I had who was really onto stuff, who saw "oppression" and "exploitation" and wasn't afraid to call them out.

I soon realized Tanya had a secret pipeline to the real deal, and I imagined that it came from her city dad, the Indian doctor no one ever saw. If Shirley wasn't invited to a party, she would probably have just silently endured it before Tanya came along, feeling bad no doubt but not really knowing why. But not Tanya. "No Invite for colored girls like me," she'd say loudly, striding through the school parking lot, taking a drag off her cigarette, blowing it right at me, daring me join the conversation, the lone "white girl" in the group.

That's the thing: When I was with Tanya, I was "White" (which I'd never been before because I was part of the invisible, privileged class, "the dominant culture," Tanya reminded me) and I was "rich," which was even harder to accept because British Protestant children of the Depression that my parents were, they didn't really shoot a quarter my way that I wasn't going to have to account for later. Whereas Tanya who was "poor" and lived with her single mom drove a very black, very brand new car her dad had bought her.

But I wanted the role of the lone white girl, the Peggy Lipton--and, in fact, had to wrest the role from another white girl Tanya had adopted the year before. It was worth it.

Within a month of my new alliance, a creamy envelope arrived in the mail. It was from my city life: an invitation to the Debutante Ball. Oh God, what would Tanya have to say about this?

(To be continued....Like this blog? Tell your friends! And "follow" it. Thanks!)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Deux

Without revealing myself as an utter snob, I will say simply I did not see kids I wanted to hang out with as I surveyed the parking lot of Nanaimo District Secondary School, chock full of beat up trucks and muscle cars. Clusters of levi-ed boys were gathered around cars with doors flung open and one feathered haired guy leaned back and hooted, "MDA Weekend." His use of an unfamiliar acronym (later i found out MDA is a drug akin to ecstacy) terrified me. I'd always counted on knowing the language, if nothing else.

But my own snobbery was not unrivaled. No one particularly wanted to be friends with me either. A boy named Larry in my drama class, looked me up and down one day and asked in a loud voice, "Do you even own a pair of jeans?" It so happened I was wearing the aforementioned tweed skirt from Montreal that day. I must have actually muttered the word "Montreal" in my defense. "Montreal?" he said, his voice full of mockery. "Puh-lease!"

This comment was deeply connected to a class divide that it would take me the whole year to catch onto. I had no I idea that an electric fence ran along the line between labor and management and that every kid I encountered was a union member's son or daughter and that everyone knew my unusual last name as the name of one of the new managers at the mill. Outsider, sent from the city to boot. Interest in anything from Quebec, anything French, was for high talking city folk like myself. Why didn't I know any of this?

So, you can sort of survive high school without friends except for one thing: Lunch. During classes, you're supposed to be listening to the bad-accented teacher recite Le Petit Prince; you're not supposed to be hanging out with friends. But lunch, I dreaded. I mostly circled the halls as if I was headed somewhere or if I had my dad's (French, and therefore suspect) car, I'd go home.

But, then one day everything changed. It was kind of a downtime in drama class and these two girls came up to me and the one girl, Tanya--was she Latina?-- said, "You're like us. You don't fit in here. Come sit with us." I stumbled to my feet and crossed the room to where Shirley and Tanya always sat.

Tanya leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, "So this is the deal. My mom's white. My dad's from India, but he lives in the city and no one's ever seen him and so no one is sure what I am, and Shirley here is Chinese. Her parents own Wong's Diner downtown, you've probably seen it. What do you think of that?"

What did I think of that? I was being asked. "It's cool," I said, hoping that would work.

"So you sit with us from now on, okay?"

"Okay," I said.

"Because," Tanya added with a steady confidence of a person twice her age, "You don't know what you're doing."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Alienated Youth is My Drink

It seems like writers' biographies inevitably must include some period of childhood misery, alienation and isolation. They were always sick as children, or locked in their rooms or, something even further afield, like the young Jerzy Kozinski wondering through war torn Eastern Europe, orphaned and mute. I was definitely a sickly kid and super phobic about other children who I saw as tormenting bullies. I really just wanted to hang with the grown ups--smoke a few cigs maybe, soak our hands in Palmolive, discuss the ups and downs of the stock market.

I endured childhood and then--like a meteor of good luck--was somehow struck by popularity just when legend told I should be the most miserable: the eighth grade. Throughout high school, my social stock rose incrementally just as my grades (no coincidence, I'm sure)steadily sunk into mediocrity.

Then, in a startling twist of fate, I was plucked from my groovy social scene at my city high school and dropped on the eve of my senior year into an environment so unimaginably foreign and hostile that I thought I'd been dropped into hell. One day my dad took the bus home from his downtown job where he was an exec at a big pulp and paper company (Canadian readers only: MacMillan Bloedel) and said,"We're moving to Nanaimo." A few short months later, my city gig was up and I was mill-town bound.

Canadian readers, hurriedly doing the math and realizing the year is 1978, are gasping, realizing the sensitive narrator is moving to the crank capital of Canada in a time of unemployment, inflation, Debbie Boone's You Light Up My Life, Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy and flannel lumberjack shirts. American readers: Let's see. Ok, think: George W's Texas with heavy rain and a labor movement.

For some reason, my parents were not able to move over to Crank City in time for the first week of school so I moved for a week into the Port-O-Call Motel on Townsite Road with my suitcase, newly acquired tweed skirt from my summer exchange in Montreal (let me warn you how this will NOT be the right thing to wear the first day of school), and my dad's Renault (American Readers: An uppity French car--something akin to driving a Miata in George W's Texas (but with driving rain and a labor movement)).

Oh, Readers, I just glanced at the time---am due somewhere in just minutes....this story of woe and my phoenix rise from these mill-town ashes must continue tomorrow...

Friday, August 6, 2010

It Started like This Part II: More Scary Stuff from the 70's

Whew! The fever of Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway is behind us. Now, back to me, how I became me, what it's like to be me. Just kidding. But I do want to resume the how-i-came-to-write-memoir story.

Before the contest started, I wrote in the post "It Started Like This" about the influences of the 70's: annie hall, the happy hooker, go ask alice, erma bombeck. Wait, I might not have mentioned The Erm, but I should've. Such a flippin' front runner, Erma was writing about her domestic life when no one wanted to know what a stay-at-home mom did. Like, please, who cares? And, girlfriend got PAID to do that. A million dollar advance in 1978 for If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, Why am I in the Pits?---yowser!.

But, I realized the other night I'd left something out about the 70's: girl singers. I went to a Mary Chapin Carpenter/Shawn Colvin concert this week (outdoors at the Woodland Park Zoo here in Seattle, pretty cool). When MCC was talking about how she became a songwriter after college, I had a Joni Mitchell flashback. I was 14, and frankly nearly failing school and crushingly bored studying All Quiet on the Western Fucking Front and Bridge Over the Fucking River Kwai. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was never assigned a book by a female author in 5 years of high school (canada, that's why the five years, in case yr wondering) and I don't think any books were assigned that even had a female protagonist. Anyhow, that summer I had this babysitting job where there was very little to do except comb through their Jethro Tull-laden record collection. It was there that I first spied its muted beige cover with a cryptic watercolor design in the center: Court and Spark.

Over the next few weeks (these people went out a lot and i guess the kid slept a lot), I poured over these lyrics. "Sitting in a park in Paris, France, reading the news and it sure is bad. They won't give a peace a chance. It was just a dream some of us had" and "He makes friends easy. He's not like me" and "I'm sitting here waiting for my Sugar to show. He said he'd be here hours ago."
Dear God, what had I stumbled upon? This woman is clearly speaking about her own ordinary but extraordinary life. Can this be done? By the end of the summer, I'd memorized the whole album. I could still sing it verbatim today, except my kids would probably kill me.

But the point is...I'd spotted a beacon. Maybe I hadn't found any books that soothed me(bookshelves at home, btw, stuffed with Ann Rand,outdated World Books, some weird precursors to The Celestine Prophesy and back issues of Alfred Hitchcock magazine). Later, there'd be plenty of books to read, not to mention Joan Armatrading and Lauren Hill albums to listen to. But for now, I'd found something to read that quenched my reader thirst.