Sunday, July 23, 2006

Travels through Washington

I packed up my bug spray and sunscreen, and took my last cold shower. I said my goodbyes, collected my scribbled up manuscripts, and promised to write as I drove the 15 mph speed limit, top down, out of Port Townsend Centrum writer's camp. I did not want to leave. I could have lived on that cot, using a bathroom that smelled of mold, if it meant I could wake up to my laptop and a desk overlooking the Pacific.

At the ferry dock, I was scolded by the Sheriff for having almost-expired tabs. Not knowing if the DMV had sent the tabs to San Francisco, Iowa or Washington, I shrugged and offered him half my sandwich. He smiled and offered me a warning.

I was the last car the orange-vested ferry workers shoved on the boat. Blonde in a California convertible-they hated me already, rolling their eyes as I struggled to fit into the half millimeter space they were directing me. I squeezed between a RV called "Expedition" with every cheesy retirement bumper sticker you can imagine, and a minivan with a license plate that said "gotrealestate?" and either a trampoline of midgets, or an eight year old birthday party going on inside.

The ferry started to pull away, with half my car's ass hanging on to the dock. I yanked on the parking brake, and pushed over a hippie biker accidentally with my car door. "Hey!" I yelled at the Orange Vest ferry lady, who was waving her arms like an air traffic controller. "My car can't swim!"

"Oh, that," she said eyeing the back of my car and calling another Orange Vest over. "Set your parking brake. We'll just throw this net around the back."

"And these blocks under your tires," Orange Vest guy said.

My car seemed to be stable, and I was quickly distracted by the view pulling out of Port Townsend. I went up to the upper deck, wondering how I could have seen this before-the midnight blue water and mountains, historic buildings, cliffs and sailboats- and never really have seen it.

I drove off the ferry onto Whidbey Island to visit my Aunt Julieann and Uncle Pete in Oak Harbor. I drove on Highway 20, through farmlands along the water and past hidden trailer park cultures that fixate in my writing. Everything seems bigger and older to me. The evergreens and hills, the antique stores and farmhouses. Or maybe it's possible that this is now visible since I've lived in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Colorado...where these things exist only in fiction, and aren't nearly as beautiful.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Flashback: Port Townsend, Washington

I was eight the first time I saw Port Townsend, Washington. My Dad had an old Dodge van that could sit all four of us in the front. It wasn't a looker, and took some McGyvering to get to run. Its demise, little did we know, was shocking and ironic. It started fire while we were visiting a family grave. That's right-she died in a cemetery.

One of the first places we went in that baby blue eyesore was the Ferry to Port Townsend, Washington. It was a tiny town, with weird little shops that sold dusty things and postcards. A few years later, our middle school band showed up for a parade. I was dressed in blue and white, marching like I was practicing for a career and wailing out sour notes from my clarinet with a broken reed. I have pictures from the ferry with Michelle, Jolyne, and my hairsprayed bangs. There was barely enough room in the picture for my bangs and anyone else.

When I was sixteen, I had a Ford Escort that I named Gutless Wonder. I was a dishwasher at a Chinese Restaurant for $3.65 an hour. I was doing poorly (okay, flunking) algebra, geometry, Spanish...and was put in classes with stoners and other delinquents. These classes had names like "Plants and People." We hung out in a greenhouse and grew...plants. The stoners seemed to have a green thumb.

I had one Creative Writing class, and I wrote poetry and short stories. One day the principal came looking for me. I avoided him for days. When he finally tracked me down, he said I won first place in state for poetry-a poem I turned in last minute, untyped, on a crumbled up piece of notebook paper. I didn't sign it, but he recognized my handwriting. He asked if I would read it in two assemblies. I said I would think about it. He said if I read it I would get the prize money. Considering the prize money was a weeks worth of scraping Chow Mein off family style dishes, I asked him which day. I didn't want to skip.

That gig led to graduation, homecoming, and prom poems and became the school poet. I cringe to think what these poems said, but they all seemed very important at the time. My creative writing teacher (Carl Steiner) told me I was chosen to attend Centrum's Creativity Camp in Port Townsend for high school students. It was official. I was green-lighted to skip an entire week of real school to hang out with real poets on the beach.

I drove my Gutless Wonder to Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. My car was choking a bit and drooling oil all over the road, but running, and it made it to the massive, woodsy, white-housed park. I was mentored by some great writers and met other creative weirdos like myself. That was a turning point. That's when I decided to give up horticulture and dishwashing and go to college.

So here I am, in Port Townsend again. Sixteen years later in the same place I was when I was sixteen. I rolled up in my newish convertible that purred with my cowboy hat and Chanels. "You look like a romance writer!" an overly-enthusiastic man with an Oregon baseball cap said.

"Thank you, I think," I said. He backpedalled a bit, but I wasn't really paying attention. It was too surreal being there, at my old camp on the beach. Where I discovered Throwing Muses (favorite song, "Not Too Soon"), didn't inhale, had minor crushes on boys and major wardrobe issues involving stonewash. It's where I lost my reputation and found my voice.

It's changed. Classical music plays in the bathrooms, they have a fancy cafe in a renovated Commons area. Even though they have a School of Rock here, I have yet to see a minor smoking out a room window, or pierced-up kids wearing all black getting all their hate out their scribbled up journals. I found my old cabin and am going to see if our graffiti is still there, and the poems we tucked in the walls, above my bunk bed.

I did see a girl that looked familiar to me, and I to her. She came here when she was 16, too. Her time here also encouraged her to go into a writing career and pursue creative writing.

"I'm sure we knew each other, I just don't recognize you," I told her. I clutched my handbag and I squinted through my Chanels.

She stood, shirt tucked in with hair that looked expensive. "I looked like a different person then," she said.

Maybe, I thought, this woman and I were unrecognizable because we looked different. But mostly, I realized, we were unrecognizable because, we were the lucky ones who were shown a different path and now, gratefully, we were.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Creative Writing Cross-Country Tour

I've rocked out in a convertible for over 5,000 miles (with and without a radio). I've gotten the peace sign from helmetless packs of Hells Angels, two farmers on rusted-out tractors, and a little girl hanging out of a minivan. I've seen corn fields, horse trailers full of pooping chickens, and fifteen cent toll booths. I've seen red mountains, blue mountains, green mountains, and mountains made of nothing but dirt. I crossed the Mississippi River to Arcade Fire and got nauteus at the Spam Museum. I tasted Amish cheese while trying to make conversation (not the chattiest folks), and ate tens of fast food salads in towns that were experimenting with their health nut side.

I survived the Vegas-like billboards of South Dakota. Some favorites: Dick's Auto "Something like New!", Reptile Museum, Don't do METH (spray painted in a succession of messages along with METH KILLS, Don't let METH hook you (with a spray-painted fishing hook), Corn-ceptual Art, fifty or so WALL DRUG signs (yes I stopped in Wall, South Dakota because by then it was like God made my car exit). Another billboard about a Cowboy Orchestra topped my list. I listened to a lot of music, and sang to things I won't admit even exist in my iPod collection. I heard a line in a Dar Williams song (my college roommate and I listened to her in college) "There's something I've finally faced-I finally think I've come from some place." It's from Road Buddy. I don't know what it means to her, but I know what it means to me.

While I've been absent from all of you-my friends and family-my life has changed. In the way you remember a good birthday party, your first car, or the night you got your first kiss. (Which I'm still waiting for in case you're reading, Dad.) I spent focused time with my writing, and completed the first five chapters of my novel. I also fine-tuned my collection of essays, which are also called "It's Just the Anti-Depressant Talking." They include about fifteen essays and short stories about my family, laundry day, the ex-file, fourth of july, and various highlights of my past working history, including road construction, bartending, working as an artist and advertising copywriter. I received encouragement from writers, professors and authors who mentored me through the difficult patches in my work and whose advice taught me great things about my craft.

So now that I have turned up (I write to you from Seattle, Washington) and you haven't seen me on the backside of milk cartons, I want to give you the rich details of the summer that has so radically changed me. I don't know where to start, but I'll let my enthusiasm take the lead.

If I start with my month of creative bliss in Iowa City, I could tell you that I discovered the writing mecca of America. Is it the publishing capitol of the universe like New York City, San Francisco, or Denver (yes, Denver!) Is it brimming with crowded sidewalks, homeless, twenty neighborhoods with their own personality and fifty things to do every night with the hail of a I couldn't figure out exactly why I fell so completely in love with Iowa City until I got a phone call from my friend Todd. He was high off a Jay-Z and Beyonce meeting and responded, upon hearing he had reached me in the Midwest, "Isn't there, like, nothing to do out there?" Which is exactly why I'm getting so much done. It's a monastery for writers. There are no distractions. It is beautiful, friendly, embracing of new people.

As most of you know, I was granted a fellowship to hang with Iowa Writer's in Iowa City. I didn't realize, until I arrived, that most students only came for a week or weekend. My grant paid for three full weeks and two weekend courses. I drank this in, certain I was thirsty for this since I attended Centrum in Port Townsend as a sixteen year old. In high school, I was the school poet, and somewhere between the lure of the New York City advertising world and their one-bedroom rents, I went into advertising. Essentially making the greater society feel inadequate by dictating the what they wanted to hear, eat, see, drive, drink, wear, and do. The creative briefs fought my sensibilites, and sometimes to get through I told myself: It's just what I do, not who I am. It's only a job.

But, in advertising, you have no life, so what you do morphs into who you are. Those products talk to you in your sleep, offering you more creative ways to make them the most popular box on the shelf. Although there are a great many things I learned, and love about advertising, I am fortunate to have chosen the artist's path out. Since clearing the mind-space, I have more room and time for what I love: writing and art. Real writing, not junk mail or billboards or TV commercials that ruin the meanings of beautiful songs.

While in Iowa City, I got deep into my characters, and their lives, instead of my own. I was exposed to people who were serious writers, and took me serious in my pursuits. But it wasn't all punching out the pages. I discovered my new favorite flavor of ice cream (Hello Dolly @ Whitey's), that wide open spaces make me somewhat claustrophobic (if something happened, without a metropolis, what would happen?), and probably most fun, my Camp Crush, Adam from Indiana.

Adam and I were inseparable in Iowa City, at our elevenses lectures (lectures @ 11am by authors and professors), lunches, readings, and all of the events. We drove around in my convertible, read our new work (he's works in poetry and creative non-fiction), hung out on big round hay bails in fields-until seemingly drunk farmers with flashlights came running us off.

After completing in Iowa City, I had just over a week between my next writing scholarship, at Centrum Writer's Conference in Port Townsend, Washington. So I visited Indiana and we went to Chicago, taking the L to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs vs. The White Sox, a cross-town rivalry. The convertible got caught in some unexpected rain, which created a frenzied panic for us, and anyone watching.

At the game, I saw serious fans write out scores, beer men yelling and throwing silver cans into the crowd. I watched fans openly shit-talk the other teams and near fist fights errupt. It was like having great seats to a baseball game AND boxing match.

On the way home, we stopped at a Fireworks Warehouse, which was set up like a neighborhood grocery store. Adam and I filled up our basket (yes, basket) with fountian fireworks, ladyfingers, bottle rockets, and the bigger stuff, like Wide Open, and a 12 mortar blast. Some of the fireworks had names like Kentucky Kaboom and Tenessee TNT. A favorite: Big Mutha Trucka. I was too afraid of that one to be curious about what it did. We blasted our bottlerockets (from the convertible) before setting them off in Adam's friend's yard. We blew up miniature model cars, blowing off doors, hoods and the windows out one M-80 at a time, with the precision and seriousness of scientists conducting an experiment that would cure cancer.

After I left my San Francisco heart in Indiana, headed through Illinois, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and finally Washington. My radio went out in Spokane, Washington, exhausted from the radio interceptions from conservative christian preachers, my obsessive songlist on repeat, and no doubt, my awful singing voice. I've also travelled this summer through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa.

I can't wait to return to Iowa City. It's my top M.F.A creative writing choice. I have to remind myself: It's statistically more difficult to get accepted into the Iowa Writer's Workshop than Harvard Medical School. A piece of information that only makes me want to work harder for the acceptance letter when it arrives...depending on where I'm living, and if they can find me, that is.

I arrived in Bellingham, Washington yesterday around nine in the morning. I was jetlagged from fast food and time zone changes. I gave my Dad and sister a hug, and headed straight for my old room to crash. I never thought a twin bed with a separated bunk bed frame and flower sheets could be so comfortable.

I start my scholarship in Port Townsend, Washington (off the strait of Juan de Fuca) tomorrow afternoon. I'm visiting my cousins (Rachel and Josh) tonight and staying with Josh's family in Bainbridge Island. Then I'll be boarding the ferry and heading off to my next creative writing adventure. Stay tuned.