Out of My Head and Back in My Bed

We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Probably one of the most interesting things–to me–about getting older is discovering for myself how differently I remember things in my past than other people do.  I used to think about writing personal essays–“I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is probably the best one I’ve ever done, and one of the few that have ever been published–because I love them, and the way some of my favorite writers can produce the most insightful and touching ones. But then I always have that doubtful voice in the back of my head–who cares about your personal experiences? Why do you think your insights are more valuable than anyone else’s? Who would be the audience for these?–and you know, FUCK that voice. I fucking hate that voice, and it’s always there, whispering, not sweet nothings, but vicious you’re nothing’s in my head.

And for the record, I’m pretty damned proud of “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.”

But perhaps the worst part of that snide, hateful voice is that it’s always there, you know? When I think to myself, hey, you should write a personal essay about this and then…yeah. My friend Laura, whose amazing personal essay collection My Life as a Villainess will drop soon–buy it buy it buy it–and I were talking about this very thing once over drinks (always over drinks) several years ago; I was telling her how much I loved her essays and that I wished I could write personal essays, with my usual “I can’t do anything” default, and she replied, “You write one every day. What do you think your blog is?”

Touche, as it were.

But….I can never seem to silence that voice.

Another reason why I back away from writing personal essays or the occasional thought that I might want to write a memoir–or a lengthy series of personal essays about my life which can then be stitched together into a memoir–is because my memory is so faulty, and the older I get, I find–when checking actual facts against my memory–inevitably I remembered wrong. For years, I believed we left the city of Chicago for the suburbs in the winter of 1969; why that winter, I don’t know–even though intellectually, after thinking about it some more, I realized my memories were lying to me. I was ten when we moved, I turned ten in 1971, so we moved in the winter of 1971–and we only lived there for four and a half years–which seemed so much longer than it actually was! Just as how I thought, after Katrina, I’d sheltered at my parents’ for months, when it was actually just a little over two weeks. I was only gone from New Orleans for about six weeks in total, actually; it seemed like I was gone for an eternity. My memory lies to me, all the time.

And how I remember things is different from how other people remember the same things. I think we tend to make ourselves the heroes in the story of our own lives, and so we rewrite our histories a little, so we look better than we actually were. Our memories are also seen through the haze of our collective other experiences, emotions, and perceptions; I might remember someone as being distant and cold, why they remember the encounter as two strangers being polite to one another. I used to think my first impressions of people were always the correct ones and evidence of my remarkable perception; but that is also demonstrably false. After all, once you’ve closed your mind to someone it’s terribly easy to interpret their behavior and the things they say through the filter of that initial observation, thereby turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve taken to not entirely trusting my first impressions of people the older I’ve gotten, and people who put me off when we first met have turned out to be lovely; and lovely people I instantly liked have turned out to be horrible.

So, how could I trust my memories enough to write them down?  Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we tell ourselves lies in order to live with ourselves is actually a more accurate statement.

So, what is real and true in our pasts? How does one examine the truth of your own memories?

I am regularly amazed at the lies I tell myself about my past, and how I’ve told myself those lies so many times that I’ve become convinced they are truth. How can I ever write any kind of memoir when I already don’t trust my memories–all of which I would have been willing to swear at some point were honest-to-God truths?

This blog is, in some ways, a remembrance project for me; to remember events in my life, and career, and how things actually were. I kept a diary for years–I still carry a journal around with me, but I don’t record my thoughts and feelings in it; it’s mostly for ideas about books I’m reading or movies I’m watching or for working through issues with things I’m writing or for writing down ideas for stories or books or essays; hoarder Greg has kept most of those journals from the days before blogging, when I used to record things down in a book so I could process emotions and anger and other things I was going to do; to talk about my dreams and my ambitions; as a way to escape whatever misery was going on in my life. I rarely revisit them; perhaps some weekend when I am bored and don’t want to write I should start going through them again–but in all honesty, the self-absorption can be a bit much to take.

I also don’t like to revisit my past that much, which is yet another reason for me not to write a memoir. I wasn’t a person I liked very much until I was in my mid-thirties, and even then I was still a work in progress. My friend Jeffrey Ricker said to me the other day on Twitter: “I always forget you weren’t born full formed in New Orleans, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.” A lot of it had to do with being miserably unhappy with my life, of just kind of drifting, of having no self-confidence (I may have issues with that still–particularly when it comes to my writing–but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, so I have made progress; I don’t let it ruin my life anymore, which is a good way to go), and not having the slightest idea of how to go about making my dreams come true. I always wrote–I wrote short stories in high school, I wrote a novel while in college, and then wrote three more, and of course was writing short stories the entire time–but it was very easy to give up after getting some rejections; to assume that becoming a publisher writer was something outside of my particular skillset, and to just give up and go back to being miserable. There’s really nothing from that period of my life I think would even be interesting enough to write about.

So, I generally shy away from the idea of writing a memoir, despite the enormous temptation. I don’t remember things the way they actually happened, but rather, how they happened through the prism and fun-house mirrors of my own mind. Whenever we tell stories about ourselves, we inevitably make ourselves sound better than we may have actually beenLook at the carefully curated lives we see of friends and acquaintances and relatives on social media.

My blog served me well for remembering things during the Time of Troubles; it actually began as a way to start writing again, of making myself sit down and write something every day. It has evolved over the years into something else, something different; I’m not even really sure how to classify it. I talk about television shows and movies and books I enjoy; I talk about my day to day life and experiences; the way I view things and my hopes and dreams, and my struggles with my writing. It is, of course, much more carefully curated now than it was in the beginning–more lies of omission, I suppose, is how it would best be described. It’s now a habit; on those rare days when I don’t have the time, or can’t find the time, to write an entry it bothers me all day–in fact, it’s been awhile since I have missed a day, and usually it’s because I’m out of town.

I guess this entry counts as a personal essay, doesn’t it?

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The Dance

Someone told me once, long ago, that life was a dance. You could either stand in a corner or off to the side and watch; you could find a partner and go out on the dance floor and participate, or…you could go out on the dance floor by yourself and celebrate your life. I spent the first thirty-three years of my life on the side, watching and envying the people out on the dance floor. At thirty-three was when I decided I’d dance with myself if I had to–and within a year I wasn’t alone out there, and haven’t been since.

The dancing metaphor has come in handy more than once–my lengthy essay in Love Bourbon Street  was titled “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet”–and while I don’t actually go out dancing anymore–the noise! the people! the late nights!–I still think of myself as out on the dance floor of life, under the glittering, sparkling disco ball while the bass is thumping and some diva is holding a note for what seems like five minutes.

Yesterday wasn’t a bad day, all things considered–although I suppose a very strong case could be made for days being judged currently on a scale of degrees of bad would perhaps be the easiest way to do it–but I got through, as did we all, and that’s another day in the dustbin of history. I am currently in this bizarre space of being  in the midst of something–as is everyone, again to varying degrees of bad–that is so vast and overwhelming that it cannot be considered in its entirety, for that path is the darkest one and must be avoided at all costs so I have to keep it at as much arm’s length as I can in order to cope with what my little piece of its reality is.

As much as I tamp down on it, it bubbles up periodically and runs wild for a horrifying moment or two, before I can get the lid forced back on and held down with all my strength until it subsides again.

And then I get on with it, as one does.

I started reading another du Maurier short story yesterday, “The Archduchess,” which is interesting and different and quite unlike anything of hers I’ve ever read before–always part of the delight of reading her work for the first time–and so I read on warily, wondering what she has in store for me the reader. I also managed to burp up about 500 or so words on my short story “Condos For Sale or Rent,” my quarantine noir story that has come literally from nowhere and is currently demanding my attention, and its urgency is impossible to resist or ignore–despite having any number of other stories and various projects requiring, yet not receiving, said attention–and while I am generally fairly good at harnessing my creativity and making it do what I want it to do (with varying degrees of success, but it generally winds up doing what I want in some way), now I just don’t have either the will or the energy to wrestle my creativity into where it should be. Anyway, I like the voice and I like that it’s set in the NOW. It’s an isolation/quarantine story, yes, and it has some potential, quite frankly. But we’ll see where it goes and how it turns out–but for now, I am having some serious fun with it.

And isn’t that what matters?

We finished watching Season 3 of Ozark last night, which means tonight we are most likely going to either continue with the insanity of Tiger King or move on to something else; I am thinking either Locke and Key on Netflix, or perhaps His Dark Materials on HBO; or something else entirely. There is a lot of really great stuff out there, and so that makes it even harder to decide what to watch. Or I could just read some more. I have to finish reading the du Maurier story, and I would also like to start the reread of Ammie Come Home, which is, naturally, one of my favorite books of all time.

And on that note, tis time to get back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

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It Never Rains in Southern California

Less than a week until Royal Street Reveillon is officially out in the world!

And so far, no current labor pains!

But, in fairness, it took me a good long while to write this book. My memory is so bad, and I’m so constantly and regularly busy, that I don’t even remember when I actually wrote it and turned it in to my publisher. I think it was earlier this year? I don’t remember–and that’s kind of sad. This is but one of the many reasons I don’t think I’ll ever write a memoir; my memory lies to me all the time and I never know what I remember correctly, let alone times and timelines and so forth. For example, when I was writing my essay “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” for Love, Bourbon Street, I went into it thinking I spent weeks in Kentucky at my parents’ after the evacuation, when it was actually less than three before I returned to Louisiana. That was a shock, believe me…but it’s true: we evacuated on August 28th, and I returned to New Orleans for good in early October after several weeks on the North Shore at my friend Michael’s. Stress and age and everything else combines to make things seem different in memory; and I’ve also noted, many times, how often people look back through a rosy glow of nostalgia. (I’ve always thought people view the past nostalgically because they aren’t happy, for one reason or another, in the present; they think oh, everything was so much simpler and easier back then. It’s usually not that true.)

So, Gregalicious, why did you decide to write a murder mystery built around a reality television show filming in New Orleans?

I didn’t watch An American Family, the first true reality show, back in the 1970’s on PBS, as the Loud family allowed their lives to be filmed for the entertainment of the masses. The show, which was the baseline for everything that came later, was quite controversial–I remember reading in the newspaper that one of the sons came out as gay on camera, which was kind of a big deal in the 1970’s–but in the 1990’s, I was a big fan of MTV’s sociological experiment, The Real World, and it’s sister-show that came later, Road Rules. But as the shows went on, they went from being a sociological experiment (hey, let’s take a group of seven kids from completely different backgrounds, make them live together and work on a project, and see what, if anything, they learn from each other) to being exploitative (hey, if all of them are young and beautiful and damaged, and we encourage them to drink and hook up, drama will ensue!), which was when I lost interest in watching them anymore. I also watched the game show version–The Challenges–primarily because the young men were always hot, often shirtless, and sometimes even less clad than that, plus watching the competitions was interesting. But it, too, eventually paled in interest to me–they were so repetitive, and the producers never intervened when violence broke out, and that was more often than not–and so I stopped watching.

The Real Housewives was different for me. Back in the day, we used to watch Bravo a lot–Inside the Actor’s Studio, Project Runway, reruns of Law and Order and The West Wing–and when they started promoting a new show they were doing called The Real Housewives of Orange County, I sniffed disdainfully at it. At that time, one of the hottest shows on network television was Desperate Housewives, and this seemed to be a rip-off, an attempt to cash in on the success of another network’s show by copying the title and so forth: “oh, if you like that show, here’s the real women of the area who are housewives, and what there lives are like.” The previews I’d see didn’t really encourage me to watch–the women seemed, for the most part, like horrible people, particularly Vicki Gunvalson–but as the show spawned spin-off shows in other cities and regions, I became more than passingly acquainted with them. They usually ran marathons on Sundays, and when it’s not football season Sunday television was pretty much a wasteland. I’d flip on the marathon for background noise while I read a book and Paul napped on the couch–but I also began to absorb the shows through a kind of osmosis. I knew who the women were and what their lives were like–but still didn’t watch regularly until around 2010, or 2011 or so.

And once I started giving Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills my full attention–yeah, I was hooked.

Paul would even watch with me from time to time…and we played a game: if they did a New Orleans version, who would they cast? It was fun, because we also were relatively certain none of the women we thought would kill it on such a show would ever remotely consider doing such a show (Southern Charm New Orleans proved us right), and then I began to think…but such a show here would be absolutely the perfect background for a murder mystery, because of the way everyone here is so connected to everyone else and there would be backstory and history galore.

I always saw it as a Scotty book, but when I turned it into the Paige novella, that changed things. I still wanted to do a Scotty book about a reality show, and I started making notes for one called Reality Show Rhumba. And, if you’re wondering, that’s where the character of Frank’s nephew Taylor Wheeler came from; when I added him to the regular cast of characters for the Scotty series, my intent was to have him eventually be case in a Real World-type show here in New Orleans, and anchor a murder mystery. But then…the Paige novella series went nowhere, and I hated losing such a great idea..so as I went into Garden District Gothic I introduced Serena Castlemaine to the boys, thus planting the seeds for Royal Street Reveillon, knowing I could keep some parts of the story but would have to change others–which was cool, because I always felt that the original novella was kind of rushed, and I didn’t have either the time–or the space (since novellas are by nature shorter)–to make the story what I wanted it to be.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow

Sunday morning and I have a rather full plate today. I need to finish cleaning the downstairs, and I have to get back to work on the revisions. This should all be easy enough to do–my office is in the kitchen, which is also the last part of the downstairs that needs cleaning, so I can go back and forth between the two. Also, while I am waiting for the kitchen floor to dry, I can repair to my easy chair and get back to reading Tomato Red, which is fantastic. I am behind on the revisions; I had hoped to be working on the last, final polish over this weekend; instead I find myself finishing the fourth draft; four chapters to go until it is all done and ready to move on to a final polish. I am hoping that I can get that done today, take tomorrow off, and then focus on the final polish on Tuesday before returning to work on Wednesday.

It’s a good plan, anyway.

I’m still recovering from the enormous shock of the Macavity nomination for “Survivor’s Guilt.” As Constant Reader knows, I don’t have a lot of self-confidence with short stories; I struggle with writing them and I often wonder if even the ones that get published are any good. I remember one anthology I was in, early in my career, in which the editor wrote a lengthy afterward to the book, discussing every story in the anthology in great detail–except mine. He discussed the fifteen or so other stories at great length, marveling about their themes, characters, and the language–pointedly not saying a word about mine. I had been extremely proud of being accepted into that anthology; and once I read that afterward–I never even bother putting the contributor copies in the bookcase reserved for my own work. It was such a stunning slap-in-the-face, and I–always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt even while I am being slapped across the face–could not, and still cannot, come up with any logical or kind explanation why an editor would do such a thing.

How do you discuss all the stories in the collection and leave out ONE?

I’ve never been able to decide if it being deliberate is worse than it being a careless mistake; both, in my mind, are equally bad.

I’ve never spoken to that editor again, either–didn’t respond to emails, didn’t help promote the book, etc. Maybe a bit childish, but that was so rude and so nasty, and I was so early in my career…I considered, and still do, that insult along the same lines of the creative writing teacher who told a nineteen-year-old me that I would never be published. I sometimes wonder if that is where my insecurity about writing short stories comes from; as though in my subconscious my slight success with writing novels didn’t really disprove that teacher’s smug, smiling and ever-so-condescending comments to me; since he was basing his opinion on a short story I’d written for his class, I had to get some kind of success with short stories in order to finally put that damage to my psyche to rest.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was a story I never thought I would write, nor should, to be honest. It’s a Katrina story; and the kind of Katrina story I certainly didn’t think I should ever write, or try to write. I’ve not done a lot of Katrina writing, which may surprise some people. My story in New Orleans Noir, “Annunciation Shotgun,” is a post-Katrina story that doesn’t really address the disaster at all; Murder in the Rue Chartres is the only novel I wrote that dealt directly with the aftermath. My essay “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is the only one I’ve published about my own personal experience, and what I observed before, during, and after. After Rue Chartres, I pretty much put the disaster in the rear-view mirror and only mentioned it, in my New Orleans novels, slightly in passing from there on out. Scotty never really dealt with Katrina and its aftermath much; just some passing references and so forth, finally having Scotty deal, slightly, with his past issues and his own PTSD a bit, in Garden District Gothic  a little.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was originally inspired by a story I was told sometime in the months after Katrina, after I’d returned, and was at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. In those months after Katrina, we all had a bit of ‘disaster-fatigue’; one of the hardest parts about coming back as early as I did was that as others returned, you had to relive your own experience in conversation while listening to other people’s stories. This went on for over a year before finally, it was happening less and less.  It’s very hard to recover from PTSD when you are constantly being forced to relive the events that led to your psychological scarring in the first place. I kind of refer to the years 2005-2009 as My Crazy Years–emotionally raw and on-edge, never knowing what would trigger a manic episode or a breakdown of sorts.

But I digress. We all saw the images of people trapped on their roofs, begging for help, begging for rescue; those images are seared into the collective American consciousness. But the pictures, those images, didn’t tell the whole story; yes, they were horrifying and heart-breaking, but we couldn’t really get a true sense of the suffering being endured; the unbelievable heat, the humidity from the presence of all that water, the smell, the sense of hopelessness and despair. But it also occurred to me, even then, in my horror–not even sure I would be able to return to New Orleans, not sure if I would ever be able to write again; that such a disaster was also the perfect cover for people to get away with murder, or to cover up one. I sketched out an idea for a short story in a hotel room sometime in early 2006, about just such a thing. I thought of it as a horror story, more so than a crime story, frankly; because I couldn’t imagine having to endure something like what those who didn’t evacuate did without losing my mind. I saw the story as being told by a narrator rendered unreliable by what he was enduring; what was real, what was a figment of his breaking mind? But I put the story aside, because I didn’t think I could write it (certainly not at that time) nor did I think it was my story to tell; I evacuated and watched it all happen from a distant remove.

When I was asked to contribute to New Orleans Noir, I immediately thought of that story and was going to write it; but the authors were all assigned to a neighborhood, and my assignment was my own neighborhood, the lower Garden District, which didn’t flood. So, instead I conceived of “Annunciation Shotgun,” which is still one of my favorite stories of my own, and once again, put the rooftop story aside. A few years later, there was a horror anthology submissions call, and I decided that the rooftop story was a good fit for it. I sat down and wrote it, calling it “Blues in the Night,” which was always what I thought was the right title for it. I wrote it, submitted it, and didn’t get into the anthology. I took that as a sign that I’d originally been right; it wasn’t my story to tell, and it went back into the drawer.

When I got the opportunity to edit the Bouchercon New Orleans anthology, Blood on the Bayou, I wondered about whether or not I should write a story for it myself; there seems to be a school of thought out there that a writer/editor, when doing an anthology, shouldn’t include one of his/her own stories and take a slot from someone else. I have gone back and forth on this myself; and usually my policy is to simply write a story for it, and if someone drops out or I don’t get enough stories turned in, then I put my own story in the book. (The fact that almost all of my anthologies include one of my own stories stands as proof that someone always drops out at the last minute.) But I decided, as I rewrote “Blues in the Night” and changed the title to “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I was going to go through the same process as everyone else who submitted a story: a blind read by a small, select group of readers who would rank the stories. I was enormously pleased that the readers chose my story, and so felt a bit vindicated there. When the book came out, some of its reviews singled out my story as good, which was also lovely.

The story’s opening was cribbed from a draft of another short story called “Sands of Fortune” that I never did anything with; it’s still in a folder and I may do something with it, but that opening sentence: The sun, oh God, the sun, just really seemed to fit in “Survivor’s Guilt.”

Of course, my story was disqualified from various crime story awards for any number of reasons (I didn’t get paid since it was for charity! I edited the anthology so it was really self-published! etc. etc. etc.), and so the Macavity nomination was something I wasn’t even thinking about as even a remote possibility. When I got up Friday morning and the first thing I saw on-line was being tagged on a post of the award nominations, I just assumed Blood on the Bayou had been nominated in the anthology category; as it had been already nominated for an Anthony Award as well. It was quite a shock to scroll through the list and see that there actually wasn’t an anthology category; I was terribly confused, so I started going through the categories one by one and there I was, in the Short Story category, of all places.

I still can’t believe it, frankly; I am not the best judge of my own work, and maybe am far more critical of my own work than I should be–but there were so many damned great stories in Blood on the Bayou that I thought if any stories from it were short-listed for awards, mine was at best a long-shot. (Awards, though,  are also always a long-shot for everyone; they aren’t something you can count on or look forward to; all you can do is hope. So much crime fiction is published every year, and so much of it is fantastic, so you can just do your best work and then it’s out of your hands.)

You can only imagine what a thrill it is to be nominated against such amazing writers as Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates, Art Taylor, Paul D. Marks, and Craig Faustus Buck. (Not a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, either–so I can just enjoy the thrill of being nominated and not get uptight about winning.) The class of 2017 Macavity nominees, all over, includes some incredible writers; people whose work I love and enjoy and respect. I am still processing that, to be honest–that, and having to show up for two award ceremonies at Bouchercon in Toronto this October.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Oh! One of the things I did yesterday while cleaning the living room was put all my author sets on the same book shelf. Don’t they look nice there, all together? The blue ones to the left of the Steinbeck set, which you can’t read the spines on, are the Daphne du Maurier set: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn.

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And yes, that is one of our collection of Muses shoes on the shelf above.