Archive | March, 2015

Dinner With A Therapist

31 Mar

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Tonight was one of those chance evenings where the universe aligned and I had a few hours off work at the same time my friends were in Malibu and so we celebrated with Duke’s.

Duke’s is the place you go to in Malibu for a drink or a burger.  It’s right on the water and has amazing key lime pie.  We ordered everything on the menu.

It was nachos.  It was fish tacos.  It was fries. It was burgers.  It was key lime pie and then an ice cream pie and then, oh, 27 million drinks, keep those drinks a coming and oh wait her baby is asleep how about after dinner coffee then?  And another?

It was the best time I’ve had in months.

The entire dinner, all three hours of it, was spent without cell phones.  We didn’t have to institute this rule, which is why I love these people.  Three hours just talking, no distractions.

Things come out when you talk like this.

First the basics.  Work.  Goals.  Relationships.

Oh relationships!

Then we started talking about our fighting styles.  How we fight with others.  How unhealthy/healthy it is.

And then it turned to other crazy things.

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” I asked.

And we went round robin around the table until we had exhausted our share of crazy.  I shared freely, without worry or thought.  The times I’ve been a truly awful person.  The times I regret.  The times I laugh about.  I wasn’t judged or nervous.  There’s something incredibly nice about that.  To say, this is me.  These are my flaws, my mistakes and to have someone say I see you, here’s mine.  This is me.

You aren’t terrible.

I’m not terrible.

We’re human.

At the end of the night, my friends stood up to go to the bathroom and it was just me and my friend’s husband left at the table.  This man is getting his PhD in psychology.  He also has the most perfect hair color the world has ever produced.

“So Jill,”  he said. “Let’s make a plan for you.”

I squirmed a bit.

“You have a problem with expectations,” he said.

“Yes, it’s my number one problem in life,” I said.

“Well here’s how we’re going to change it,” he said.

My friend’s husband proceeded to make a plan for my life, a plan to change my narrative of failure.  Because when you’re me and you set impossible goals, you are constantly disappointed in yourself and in life and in other people.  It’s hard way to be.  People often tell me that.

“It must be so exhausting being you,” they say when they get to know me and see the Mount Everests I build for myself to climb every day.

I say, “Yes.”

I say, “I’m trying to change it.”

My Surrogate Therapist gave me assignments to complete. “It’s not that you’re not getting stuff done, it’s that you’re not getting impossible things done and so you feel like you’re failing,” he said.

“Yes,” I nodded.  It’s an advantage, in times like these to be so transparent about yourself and your flaws and hopes.  Therapists offer free advice after dinner.

“Now go home and decide one thing you need to do tonight,” he said.

“Perfect,” I said.  “I’ll put the sheets on my bed.. And clean my kitchen.  And finish an act of my novel.  And read my book, actually make that finish my book–”

“No,” he said.  “One thing.”

My friends got back from the bathroom at that point and it was all packing and shivering and talking about how we really must do this more often.  It is necessary to do this more often.

As we said our goodbyes, I announced to my friends, “I hope next time we see each other things will be dramatically better for all of us.”

My friend’s husband shook his head, “Not dramatically better.  Small and steady incremental changes.”

I laughed.

I walked the extra 10 feet to my non-valeted car.

I went home and made my bed.

Important Book: The Year Of Magical Thinking

29 Mar

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A few months ago I posted about a book I read that changed my life. I bought copies for everyone I know. I quoted it extensively. I legitimately considered applying to an additional grad program to meet the author.

I love books like that, books that take me away from myself.

I want to share books like that.

I was late to the Joan Didion game, and I hate being late to anything, especially literature.  It’s overwhelming to love books.  There’s so many novels out there, so many great ones!  How do you choose?  How do you find them?  It feels so rare to have a take-my-breath-away book, and yet I know I’ve barely touched the surface of Great Books.

Nick Hornby, in his brilliant Polysyllabic Spree says:

Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it’s still, in any given four week period, way, way more likely you’ll find a great book that you haven’t read than a great movie you haven’t seen, or a great album you haven’t heard: the assiduous consumer will eventually exhaust movies and music. Sure, there will always be gaps and blind spots, but I’ve been watching and listening for a long time, and I’ll never again have the feeling everyone has with literature: that we can’t get through the good novels published in the last six months, let alone those published since publishing began.

He also says this, which deserves posting:

Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. “The Magic Flute” v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception -– “Blonde on Blonde” might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chance against Citizen Kane. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature 29 times out of 30.

There is a man in Malibu who looks like Nick Hornby.  He’s bald and middle aged and when I see him I start to giggle and form marriage proposals.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Joan Didion came into my life like all good authors and books do: through a combination of luck and the universe conspiring.

I really believe that, you know.  Joan was pulled into my life because I needed her.  There were recommendations from authors I admire, quotes on my Instagram feed, articles and references and this and this and THIS and it got LOUDER AND LOUDER until I picked her up BECAUSE I HAD TO.

That’s what’s happening with me and Anaïs Nin right now.  I’ll keep you posted.

The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of the year after Joan Didion’s beloved husband (and acclaimed writer ) John Gregory Dunne died. Joan shares their lives together, how good they had it.  She reflects on the meaning of existence, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of loss.  She is direct about her pain, she is direct about her life.

That’s the word I would use when describing Joan’s writing: direct.

I was surprised.  Joan is always mentioned in relation to high art writing.  I expected a David Foster Wallace type situation where I would pull out the massive book with a study guide alongside it and sludge through the words, telling myself this was genius and I would eventually see that in the end.

Joan doesn’t try to be genius, she tries to be honest.

In that process lays her genius.

The Year of Magical Thinking did a lot of things for me, but mostly it gave me a marriage I can identify with.  Don’t you like that phrase?  I read it on ManRepeller, Leandra said something along the lines of, “when you see a marriage that you don’t identify with,” and I thought, yes!  That’s what I’ve been trying to say for so long.

We all want to identify with the world around us and Joan makes me identify.  I want the life she led, a life full of hard work and hard play.  An equal partner to watch the mustard in Malibu grow.

Joan lived in Malibu for several years.  It’s a prominent part of the book, a city she places as an equal player to say, New York, or LA proper. I appreciate that.  To me, Malibu is an equal player with New York.  In a city Fantasy Boxing League, Malibu is up there, fighting to the death with New York, throwing its waves and orchids and burritos in the face of New York’s enormous muscles, knowing it probably won’t win, but trying anyway.  I appreciate Joan for seeing this.

Perhaps you’ve all read The Year of Magical Thinking by now.  Like I said, I’m late to the party.  But in case you haven’t, in case you need a book that will carry you away with its prose, a relationship to aspire to, thoughts on the world to have, well, I suggest you read it.

Quotes:

Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.

We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

I remember thinking that I needed to discus this with John.

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted.

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.

Here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is, the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.

Was it about faith or was it about grief?

Were faith and grief the same thing?

Were we unusually dependent on one another the summer we swam and watched Tenko and went to dinner at Morton’s?

Or were we unusually lucky?

What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?

What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I said it in time would it have worked?

Why was the pencil so faint, I wondered.

Why would he use a pencil that barely left a mark.

When did he begin to see himself as dead?

I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. Don’t tell me your dream, he would say when I woke in the morning, but in the end he would listen.

When he died I stopped having dreams.

This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that “you can love more than one person.”  Of course you can, but marriage is something different.  Marriage is memory.  Marriage is time.

“She didn’t know the songs,” I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience.  Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor do I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none.

In Which Hannah Horvath Chooses Healthiness And I Cry

23 Mar

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*This post contains Girls spoilers*

At the end of this season of Girls we finally see the feminine leads saving themselves.  Shoshanna decides to move to Japan for her dream job (or something like it).  Jessa announces she’s going to become a therapist.  Marnie performs solo on stage and kills it.

And what of our lead, our bold Hannah Horvath?

Hannah chooses healthiness.

Adam approaches Hannah after a shared traumatic experience. He says he misses her and wants her and he held on to all the wrong things when he let her go.

Hannah cries and says she can’t.

I can’t, she says.

Yes you can, he says.

I can’t, she says again.

And I cried.

Earlier in the season, Adam and Hannah had perhaps the best breakup I’ve ever seen on TV.

Adam looks at Hannah and says,

Did you think it was working between us?

We tried this all different kinds of ways.  I don’t know any other ways. Do you?

The scene was so brilliant I’ve thought about it ever since.  I don’t know any other ways, do you?

It makes me reflect on the delusions we hold while in relationships.  How Hannah can imagine that if they just try harder or try more it will work.  It will work.  They love each other!  It has to work.

Girls gets to me usually on a small scale.  I relate to Hannah probably more than I’m comfortable with.  When her boss says, “You’re an adult.  And I know it sucks but you just have to start at least trying to keep at least some stuff inside,” I squirm.  Because I say all my feelings as they happen.  I share and share again.  I keep nothing inside. I am the teenager in an adult body that Hannah is.

Over-identifying with small-scale Girls stuff I’m used to.  But the large-scale stuff?

That stuff has me in tears.

When I see Hannah looking the man she loves in the eye and saying I can’t, I imagine all the unspoken words.

I can’t choose this cycle again.

I can’t go through this heartache.

I know how this goes.  I know how this ends.

I love you.

I want you.

I can’t I can’t I can’t.

The season ends with Hannah, six months later, holding hands with the nice guy from school, the guy who seems so very kind and good and healthy.

I cry and cry and cry.

And then I call Rob and tell him I love him.

Because I chose healthiness.

Maybe that’s what we do as adults.

Maybe that’s what our 20s are about.

Learning to choose healthiness.

Saying I can’t.

Maybe that’s what growing up is.

I Go Crazy When I’m Writing A Novel

22 Mar

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I go crazy when I’m writing a novel.

I’ve discovered this twice now. The first time I thought it might be circumstantial, a novice-to-the-trade kind of thing.  My first real novel, you see, I started in high school.  I remind myself of this when I Hate Writing and Life and Why Am I Doing This Dear Heavens Above.  I started a novel at 17 because I really, really wanted to write.

I had a therapist in London who very bluntly told me:

a) I needed to quit my job

b) I needed to leave London

c) the boy I loved was not nearly all I made him out to be

She also told me to be a writer.

And here I am.

Sometimes I wish I still had her as a therapist.  I almost can’t remember what she looks like, is that insane?  Some cross between Joan Didion and Nora Ephron, an older woman with sensible shoes and classic hair.  An intellectual who loved Freud and didn’t mess around.  The type of fierce feminist I’m most drawn to in this world.

If you’re going to be anything, might as well be a fierce feminist, I say.

I don’t remember my therapist’s name either.  This is getting crazier.  This woman whom I owe so much to, who I talk about at least on a weekly basis, I know nothing about.

Did I make her up?

I once saw my flatmate in London leaving my therapist’s practice as I was going in and we never spoke about it.

That was real.

The point is I’m a writer and I’m writing my second real novel and gosh it’s just as hard as it was the first time.

I keep telling myself that writing is like baking.  I like to bake, or in theory I like to bake.  Later tonight I’m going to make Robert his favorite oatmeal banana muffins because I like to bake when it’s for a person I like and a recipe I like.

Writing a novel, I decided, is like making a soufflé.

It takes a few tries to know what you’re doing.

I imagine Stephen King at this point in the game sits back in his fancy desk, stretches, and then writes 40,000 words a day.  It’s like breathing to him.  No big deal.  Writer’s block?  He has another cup of coffee and powers through. He is a soufflé making machine.

I am not.

Last weekend I decided I was going to FINISH THIS DAMN THING and spend five straight days in the Pepperdine library FINISHING THE DAMN THING.

I don’t know why I do this to myself.

I would never ask myself to run a marathon.  I know I am not physically capable of running a marathon.

And yet when I’m not mentally capable of 13 hour writing days I fall to pieces.

What’s wrong with me?

Why am I so fatally flawed?

It was a hot weekend, too.  I don’t deal well with heat, partially because my room has these huge, glorious windows that make everything in it an oven.  I don’t have AC.  You don’t need AC in Malibu, apparently, except when you do and it’s 85 degrees in your house and 95 degrees in your room and you’re crying because the first half of act one of your second book is so terrible you can’t even get through it.

And your boyfriend says it isn’t that bad and you snap at him.

You haven’t read it!  Of course it’s that bad!

And then he offers to read it and you cry some more.

No one can read it ever!  What are you even talking about?

And then you go to his house to take a nap in his bed because it’s so so hot in your room.

And you are a whiny, weepy mess.

I don’t know what I’m doing with my pronouns here.

I don’t know what I’m doing with much of anything.

Writing a book is torture.  A friend, whose novel I’m giving edits on, told me she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy.  Amy Poehler in the beginning of her book describes it as “hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.”

Writing a novel is not easy.  It is not magical.

There is no dreamy cabin in the woods where words lightly flow from your fingers to the page and the sun smiles through the trees and the waves, the dangerous waves, crash–a metaphor for life.

I read Big Sur by Jack Kerouac.  He was deeply troubled during his time in a dreamy cabin trying to write his novel while the metaphoric waves crashed.

Writing is not fun.

I told this to Rob the other day when I was sad I was making the wrong choice with my life.  I kind of hate writing a lot of the time.  Especially the 95 degrees first act times.

He said, you don’t write because it’s fun.  You write because you have something to say.  Because you feel compelled to tell these stories.

And then we went into H&M to look for watermelon swim shorts for him.

They didn’t have any.

Next time, he said.

Writing a book is hard work.  I can’t even formulate normal thoughts about it yet.  It’s a lot of eating, actually.  I wonder how people are writers and even remotely healthy.

When I’m really in the groove, ticking along, I use food to sustain me.  I think, “Well yes this is an abnormal amount of popcorn, but tomorrow I am done with the book and then I will only eat asparagus and spinach and other plant things for the rest of my life.”

And the problem is tomorrow never comes.

Someday never comes.

Writing a novel takes approximately 42.4 billion times longer than you think.  Well, I don’t know how long you think it will take, but I never estimate right.  I think I can write it all in one crazy weekend and then I end up crying at my boyfriend’s house asking him to put the fan on my face because I’m so hot.

I ran cross country in high school.  That was the time in my life I was in the best physical shape.  I woke up at 5:00AM to go on a run.  I got out of class and went on a run.  I lifted weights…like all the time.  Real weights.

And I remember one day realizing that even for all my running I only ever felt good, really good like I could run for hours and hours and everything was fun and breezy and light…maybe once a month.

Maybe.

Which was quite a low statistic when you factored in how much I was running.

Writing is much the same, I’ve discovered.  Or writing a book, rather.  I like this blog.  I like assignments that take only 500 words.  Those are manageable chunks.  Those don’t have strings of plot I completely forgot about, characters who never arced, a half-defined world that never quite makes it into reality.

But writing a book?  I have a good day maybe once a month.

It’s beautiful, those good days.  It makes me feel like nothing I’ve ever felt before.  I’m giddy and giggly and tell everyone I know that the world is good and my life path is the only one I can imagine and I know, deep in my bones, that this is my destiny.

And then I get some popcorn and gear up for 42 billion more bad days.

Because that’s how this writing a novel thing goes.