Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I was once told by my Creative Director in New York: "Being a writer is not an easy life. It takes thick skin." I had asked for her feedback on an ad campaign I wrote for the Museum of Sex in Manhattan. She had told me the ways that it failed, and my disappointment must have showed.

I remember her big office in the sky with two corner windows, the way that people and cars looked like mechanical grids below. I remember feeling about as small as the ant-people below after getting her reaction. Maybe I've mentioned in a posting before but this interaction in particular stewed in me as I was spit out on the streets of Madison Avenue, feeling unworthy. I had wanted to impress my boss with my wit and muscled sentences. I was 23, maybe 24, newly graduated, and thought everyone would be dazzled by my words. I wasn't one of those people who thought she might kind of wish to be a Copywriter. I was a Copywriter who could turn any phrase on it's side, draw on pop references in a split second, create compelling brands. Or so I thought. On the subway to Brooklyn, I was sweaty from the summer humidity and miserable. This was punctuated by the sounds of clanging and screetching in the tunnels, the rickety cars held together with cable and steel, but seeming like they could come undone, just like me.

At my apartment, I decided to call my college Journalism professor, Ann Maxwell. Her steady advice had gotten me through the rough patches. This was before cell phones were prevalent, and long distance calls were a big deal. I went to the bodega on the corner and bought a "calling card" from a Puerto Rican pock-faced man, who checked me out in the creepiest way when I approached the counter.

I spoke for a long time to my Professor about my meeting. I described how hard it was living in Brooklyn, and how things were happening fast, but not fast enough for me. I was on a "career track" in advertising and felt after six short months, I wasn't meeting my milestones. My professor listened carefully for awhile, then paused. "Well," she said. "I guess you have to ask yourself something."

"What's that?" I asked, eagerly.

" 'Am I willing to be a beginner?' " she said. "You have to ask yourself if you're willing to start again each day with a beginner mind. You have to pace yourself to be open. Because this is the important stage. Right now. Being a beginner."

That was the most solid advice I'd ever recieved. She was right, I was so concentrated on the next step that I wasn't focused on the work in front of me. I looked at my Museum of Sex ad. I could see with fresh eyes that it really did suck. I wrote twelve new ads and produced four of them.

Now, here in Iowa City, I have to be in the spirit of giving and recieving feedback. It's a generosity that can be a challenge for some writers, but I feel like the next draft and the next can only improve. Even so, the truth hurts. I sat in Java House today, punching out a new story, when one of my classmates voices made me look up from my computer. "Hey, I didn't see you," she said.

I was "in it" and didn't notice her either. "How ironic. I'm reading your work now," she said.

This scared me because she was hands down the most critical of the writers in my workshop. Just yesterday she told a writer up for workshop, "There's no story in this work." or "I wanted to like these characters." or "I looked for the plot." I was essentially scared of this innocent, curly haired Midwesterner. She waxed philisophical about classic writers and stretched her hands behind her head to display her hairy armpits, giving her credibility somehow.

There was an uncomfortable pause, because I had work to do and didn't know what to say to her. She spoke first: "How do you spell 'awkward'?" she asked.

"A-W-K-W-A-R-D. Awkward," I said like a Spelling Bee finalist.

"Oh. Okay," she said, nose down. I went back to my work, looking up at times to note her fierce underlinings on my manuscript. That's when it hit me.

"Did I just spell awkward for you so that you could write that on my manuscript?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said with non-challance. "Is that okay?" she asked me like it didn't matter, I had no choice.

I inhaled and nodded, biting the inside of my mouth accidentally. She went back to her critique and I went back to mine. "Are you willing to be a beginner?" jumped in my mind, like God herself whispering in my ear.

"Yes," I told her, even though she wasn't listening.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dorm Living At The Ritz Carlton

A few months ago, while arranging my visit to Iowa City, I searched for an apartment. Last year I rented a quaint attic-like apartment for a month. It was, cozy. One of the women from the Nonfiction Writing Program had left on assignment to Chile for the summer.

Being from San Francisco, we don't really do air-conditioning. We leave doors open and get a breeze. So I suppose having the air-conditioner on with the windows open wasn't the right move. My apartment could be hot as hell. It was cute, but I never wanted to be there. So this year, when I craigslisted an apartment sublet, I hoped for the best but didn't expect much.

A sophmore at University of Iowa wrote to me and said he was going to Italy for the summer, and was subletting his apartment. "It's high security," he told me. "You have to be a student to live here." How did that translate? Dormotory.

Since he had already left for the Italian Riviera, I met up with one of his friends to get the key. I had already been through a day of driving, a day of classes, and was facing a hundred pages of homework. A girl named Angel with a heavy Chicagan accent looked at me tenatively, asked my name and then proceeded to give me directions. Angel looked Filipina, and wore a coral dress with a Juicy belt wrapped around her chest. Her makeup was flawless, I remember that. I figured she was going out.

The key itself was a wide piece of plastic attached to a small metal chip. "This will get you in everywhere," she said. Everywhere as in the basement laundryroom, I had supposed. The apartment was located on the outer rim of Iowa City, and it was built so recently it didn't show up on Google Maps. I learned this the hard way.

Tired, and just wanting to sleep, I became lost. I was looking for a pentitenturary looking place, made of bricks and cement and possibly gated with steel wire. When I finally took what I thought was a wrong turn, curving up a long road to an upscale resort, it hit me. This was the place. This "resort" was where my apartment for the summer would be.

About ten nineteen and twenty year olds crowded around a Costco sized BBQ pit at the front entrance. Some of the women half clad in bikinis because there was a hot tub beside it. This was the entrance to one of the buildings. Men laughed hard and drank beer and the smell of marinated things waffed through the air. I asked where Building 2 was, and one of the women in a baseball cap said, "We're going that way."

The entrance opened up to a large stone fireplace that reached the skylight. It was in the center of the building, with mahaghanny chairs and tables around it. Plants and large works of modern art peppered the walls and mantle. My apartment itself had (what looked like) brand new modern couches, and a TV larger than the one I have at home with instructions for Tivo. My room has a closet the size of my bedroom in California. I was too tired to check out the kitchen, but it was more of the same.

For my first night, I fetched minimal needs until I could really unpack. I walked past three guys on my floor playing pool, hunched over the red felt. They looked up in unison, and I put my head down. I walked around the other side, though it was longer, to get back to my apartment. Something about the realization that I was possibly 10 years older than them, that they might ask me to join them really spooked me.

The only unsophisticated thing about my new digs was my bed. I considered at first that it might be an actual box spring. It was that hard. Laying on this cardboard-like slat, I tossed and turned, unable to shake that I would possibly be the oldest person in this College Co-ed haven. I calculated all the benefits of being older. I use 700 count sheets, have a nicer car (or have a car at all), have worked in large cities and lived in a ski resort town. This did not comfort me. I looked in the mirror, examined one side of my forehead and wondered if I needed Botox already. I stretched the corners of my eyes to rid my imaginary wrinkles.

I decided to watch TV to bore myself to sleep. The name, "Mark Ruffalo" appeared as I clicked on the television. I love Mark Ruffalo, so I kept it there. The movie was "Rumor has it..." Jennifer Aniston's narrative explained that her family was quite possibly the source of the book and movie "The Graduate" and that "Mrs. Robinson" was her grandmother. Really though? This is what I get? The only movie worth watching is interwoven with tales of The Graduate?

I woke up the next day and walked through the quiet halls to the parking lot. Even though it's summer, these hot young guys seem to be everywhere. I mean, really though? At 8 am? Isn't that why people go to college, to sleep in until noon? Again, head down, I passed a guy with a deep tan, wrinkled t-shirt and a baseball hat.

"You from California?" he said, eyeing my license plate.

I unlocked my car with my key fob, something I rarely do. It whirled out it's two tone security sound, which embarrassed me a little because to his crappy used Ford, I'm sure it seemed flashy.

"Yeah, I guess so," I said, stupidly. How can someone "guess" they are from someplace?

"Cool," he said. "Nice car."