On “Aging Badly”

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , on 11/23/2015 by Janet Fitch

I don’t normally click on tantalizing celebrity gossip presented by sites bearing the titles ‘BoredomRUs’ or ‘LookatME’, but I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and, recently having had a rather large birthday myself, I found myself entering a site portaled by a figure of a fleshy woman in a tiny red white and blue flag bikini. “Celebrities who have Aged Horribly.”

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know who has aged horribly, so much as wanting to see what time has done with figures familiar to me from younger times in my own life, as a gauge to my own process. Probably that’s why most people want to see things like this–not to think, egad! What a mess!  (Although maybe some people do, schadenfreudenly.)

Most, I think want to simply explore the question–how do we age?

The funny thing about this photo essay,  is that the celebrities in question haven’t aged horribly at all. They have simply aged.

Gotten fatter, or smiled less. Some caught without makeup. All three is the best–like Kristie Alley,  shown flipping off a photographer in her stout fifties.

And I realized what I was seeing here wasn’t ‘celebrities aging horribly’, it was celebrity culture’s terror of time, horror of being part of a natural process. This used to be called narcissistic terror, but even the term narcissistic has gone into a new phase–like ‘privacy’, for the opposite reason–narcissism having become invisible because near universal.

Oh, the narcissistic terror of the people who put this little slideshow together!  ‘My god, she’s not as cute as she was at 20!’ How could she let herself go like that?

I must admit, I got a good long laugh, scrolling through these before and after pictures, hearing myself say, “Yep, she got older.”  “Yeah, he put on weight.”  “Even a good-looking seventy year old looks like seventy without makeup.” Keith Richards?  I mean, the  man’s a poster-boy for the fully-lived life. Kate Moss? Wrinkles when she smiles! Brigitte Bardot??  Give the woman a break. Kittens become cats.

You can’t freeze yourself like an embryo, kids.  I hate to scare anyone, but this is what happens if you’re lucky enough to stick around. You change. But change is not an emergency, it is not a failure.

One sub-theme did emerge though, perhaps the opposite one intended by these terrified narcissists. The harder certain of these celebrities tried to surgically stave off the effects of time in the body–which is life itself, after all–the stranger and more grotesque they looked.

I never did see the chick in the red white and blue bikini, but she actually looked like she was having a good time.  Certainly better than the anorexic, anxious, age-shaming person who assembled this slideshow. When I was done scrolling, I felt surprisingly happy. ‘Aging Badly’ turns out to be just aging. You don’t have to fight it, you don’t have to do a thing about it. You want to feel good, keep calm and live your life. Nobody gets a  grade on this.

A Night with Patti Smith

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 11/17/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I’d never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater–this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody’s sins… BUT– NOT –MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA–with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I’ve craved more–the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers–rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language–chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy.

I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that’s what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement–here’s my review of it on goodreads if you’re interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I’d drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It’s so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world–something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose– unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it’s the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little ‘stations’ on the mental train… – Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind–that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. “This was the first one to cross the finish line,” she joked.  She jokes a lot–I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience–“There was such responsibility in Just Kids–to chronology, and the people and the times.” To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally–didn’t have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  “This is the Girl.” She’d written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he’d written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: “There’s a responsibility with a lyric, to others.” With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  “But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way”–she held her hands up in front of her eyes–“in, towards the work.” The poet’s task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, “My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it’s good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I’ll read it and go, man, that was good!”    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. “How it transformed other people, that’s another way.” Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she’s an artist who does work across genres–“I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she’s smoking and she said, ‘I’m a painter. That’s what I do.'”  But Smith’s been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face–‘that’s who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.’ to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick–“I read it when I was about 13–but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I’m a girl, and I skipped the whaling.”

About gender: “I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender.”

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, “Who’s to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it’s comic books.  The one thing that can’t be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who’s to say that a little thug like that shouldn’t read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries.”

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, ‘what if you’re writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…’ a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids–full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who–she didn’t even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it ‘weren’t that careful with me.’ “Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It’s up to you, but that’s what I did.”

“I’m not afraid to look uncool.” What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth–her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age–joyfully.

Three Readings, One Week

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , on 10/20/2015 by Janet Fitch

An embarrassment of riches– three readings this week!

Wednesday night, October 21st, at the LA Lit Crawl in North Hollywood.  I’ll be reading with ‘Literary Locavore’ in celebration of Literature for Life, where I’m going to read from my YA Novel KICKS for the first time in 20 years. Reading with Andrew John Nicholls, Susan Straight, Jervey Tervalon and six others, at Skynny Kitchen, 8 p.m. Lit Crawl NoHo is an incredible evening, forty events all in walking distance–we’ll be reading after the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. 

 Saturday Night, October 24th, I’ll be reading something dramatically different, with two remarkable poets, the mysterious Beau Sia and the charismatic Derrick Brown at The Best Poetry Hour, 8 p.m., Art Share LA (801 E.4th Street, Downtown LA) https://www.facebook.com/events/778982138893922/

 Sunday Evening, October 25th. An extremely rare appearance with ALL the members of my own writing group!  Yes, the dashing David Francis, the ferocious Rita Williams and the elusive Julianne Cohen, and me–on stage together.  Don’t miss it!  Certain family resemblances may become evident.  at Tongue & Groove, Hotel Cafe, Hollywood.

Interview, Summer 2015

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , , , , , on 10/13/2015 by Janet Fitch

Fabulous interview with Kate Gale, at the AROHO (A Room of Her Own) writing retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, summer 2015.   So many astute questions here–talked about writing, literary forebears, thoughts on mentorship and a woman’s voice, my own literary project and the special problems of writing the historical novel.


Bubbles and Me

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 10/06/2015 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GLOVE

Anna sat at the bar of the Hyatt Atlanta, the site this year of AWP, with Scott Fender and Aly Cole. Talking about Old Times, when the three of them shared a house in Iowa—that dump–writing, critiquing each other’s work, partying it up. Her old pals joked and laughed, but she could see,behind their eyes, they were searching her for the old Anna, the fat girl, life of the party. The last one off the dance floor, the one who brought the pot, the Jack Daniels. They’d been hand in glove in those days, Anna’s door always open, her big bed always ready for a sprawl and a pow-wow, a double feature on her old TV. That was who they missed. The fat funny self-deprecating Anna, who was fun for everyone but herself.

All the fallen faces, they were trying so hard to look happy for her.  Here came one more, Laurel Chapman, standing in the entryway, squinting–she had always been slightly nearsighted–not sure if it was Anna at all. Anna turned on her barstool, all legs in her wrap dress, and caught Laurel’s eye. Yes, it’s me, her nod said. “Hello, Gorgeous!” Laurel said, rushing over.

Anna stiffened as Laurel hugged her, and she could see Laurel’s confusion. She wasn’t that big soft girl anymore, the big breasts, the big stomach, the big arms. Her arms had grown strong and lean now, her stomach non-existent. She taught at Boulder, where she had begun to climb, and mountain bike. She had gone from 185 to 124 and she could see Laurel’s disappointment, that her hug was no longer like a golden retriever slobbering all over you. She was not ‘doing’ that Anna anymore and they were all disoriented. What happened to the sidekick, the best friend, the life of the party?

Anna got the bartender’s attention right away– the boy disregarded the sea of writing profs and authors and came right to her. “My friend will have a margarita–salt, rocks. Right?”

Laurel grinned, appreciating that at least Anna remembered that much. Then her old roommate noticed that Anna herself was drinking a martini up with a twist. All that cold snowy clearness.

“So what have you been up to?” Laurel asked. But Anna knew what she was asking–What happened to you?

“She moved to Boulder,” Aly said.

“Climbing, kayaking,” sighed Scott.

“Holy shit,” Laurel said. “You look like that actress, do people ever tell you that, the one that married to Warren Beatty—“

“Anita Benning,” Aly said.

“Annette,” said Scott.

“Have you always been like, this closet athlete?” Laurel asked.

“The Anna I knew would have shit bricks if she’d had to carry a box upstairs,” Scott said.

All of them drinking margaritas, the drink Anna had introduced them to in grad school, because she was from California. Margaritas and guacamole. They were disappointed that she hadn’t stayed there with them.

“Do you still have that bong? That looked like Bubbles in 1000 Clowns?” Laurel asked, really asking Are you still smoking pot? Do you still party? Do you still get drunk and lurch around with your blouse undone? Are you still the laughing stock of Ames Iowa? Oh, we had such good times when you were such a mess. Aly loved her then, because she’d looked so good by comparison. Laurel too. So great to have someone who was never going to get picked, except sloppy seconds, or thirds.

Now she didn’t care if people liked her. She didn’t have to work at being this loveable fun gal anymore.

“I heard you have Dorna Palermo at Boulder this semester,” Scott said.

“Did you read her last book?” Anna said, squeezing the lemon peel of her martini around the rim of the glass. “What a piece of sentimental crap,”

He looked crushed, his stubbly beard, his watery blue-green eyes. “You always liked Dorna Palermo.”

“A burned out piece of shit with a bad perm,” she said.

The way they looked at her. Hadn’t she always said what she thought of people?

“They’re paying sixty grand for the residency. Hey, pay me sixty for a term of doing nothing, I’d at least sleep with the students.”

Scott laughed but the two other women didn’t. They just stared at her—what were they objecting to, her mentioning money? God forbid! Or offering to sleep with the students. Who were way cuter than they had been at Iowa.

“She won a National Book Award,” Aly argued.

“All that aged goldbricker does is drink, and she doesn’t even shtup the students. They’re very disappointed.”

But it was her friends who were disappointed. They missed parking her at the bar and going off with some adjunct faculty from Bennington. She had dropped sixty pounds, stopped performing. The Anna who wanted you to like her had died. And this was the one who was left. The one who didn’t have to sing for her supper.

And this was who she’d been all the while.

The bartender was flirting with her.

“Are you liking Colorado?” Laurel asked.

“Saved my life,” Anna said. She noticed that Laurel was putting on a few pounds. Maybe she would send her Bubble.   Like passing on the torch.

Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”


Next week’s word is: TORCH



Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

Paint It Black the Movie

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , , , on 12/19/2014 by Janet Fitch

More than just a gleam in Mama’s eye now.  It’s in Variety, and its official, the Paint It Black movie is shot and wrapping.  Amber Tamblyn, a true force of nature, who fell in love with the book back in 2007, wrote the screenplay, fought to get it made and in the end, directed it as her debut behind the camera. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Janet McTeer (OBE, Tony winner, 2 time Oscar Nominee) are starring,  along with Alfred Molina (“Call me Fred”) as Cal,  Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong!) as a refashioned Sofia, Emily Rios as Pen and Rhys Wakefield as Michael, plus Chris Palko (Cage) as Nick Nitro, and Mish Way from White Lung as Lola Lola.

It’s been an incredible journey–the book was optioned before, and with a screenplay that was truly–OMFG.  It took someone who loved it, fought for it, was passionate about it–to finally get this done.  And no one can be more passionate than Amber Tamblyn, believe me.  And now, these ultimately talented actors.  How she did it, god only knows.

Always a strange thing to walk in and see your book reimagined in physical reality.  I don’t care if a movie paints by the numbers or breaks out and does its own thing as long as its a work of art that adheres to its own logic, and man, this is that movie.


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