Memories fragment. We look back on our past selves and try to piece together the shards of old identities, a kind of retrospective forensic investigation, and exhumation of who we used to be. That sense of summoning the people we used to be is exemplified in two recent books: Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook and Sean H. Doyle’s This Must Be the Place. Both books left me with a lot to ponder, both emotionally and stylistically. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I conversed with Wendy and Sean; what follows is a long discussion of writing, reading, memory, and action.
Both of your books are told through very particular, somewhat fragmented structures. What prompted that approach, and what made it best-suited for these particular periods of your lives?
Sean H. Doyle: For me, it was a matter of how my brain is wired. Memories don’t come back to me fully-formed and don’t come back in a linear manner. Things flash in an out of time/space and I wasn’t going to try and force some kind of time-anchored narrative to be manufactured just to make things “normal,” or predicated on a familiar kind of structure. I felt much more comfortable allowing my mind to dictate how things were going to unfold.
Wendy C. Ortiz: Hollywood Notebook was written as it happened, and though I didn’t call it a blog back then, it was on the web, and I updated it almost daily, like a journal entry, so “blog” fits. I edited down the text I captured after the website “Lab of Lux” was dissolved. When editing I knew I wanted to see white space and keep the “chapters” mostly as is–short, linked–but the fragmented quality of it was in the original. The time span it covers was inherently fragmentary–the intense splits between work life, writing life, love life, etc. I was living at the time. Very much like the numerous notebooks I kept back then, with different notebooks serving as subject headers–nothing unified or “whole.”
Do you find that these are, for you both, the definitive takes on these events? Sean, I’ve heard you read different versions of some of these stories. Do either of you think that you might revisit some of these events as part of a different work?
Sean: I don’t know if there is such a thing as a definitive take. I think memory itself is such an unreliable thing, which is sometimes part of the fun of trying to write about these things that happened–what *really* went on and what was my actual role in it all?–while also trying to do it in a way where there is no interjection of the current self’s awareness or evolution. One thing that has bothered me a ton over the last few years is how often I see people complaining about writers somehow plagiarizing themselves, as if a story doesn’t shift around inside of us. I’ll write about everything that has ever happened to me[within reason] until I can no longer write, even if it means coming at it from a different place.
Wendy: There is never a definitive take. It’s the take I’m making now in the moment as a writer. Even with material I wrote years ago, I have the power of editing it to reflect the more current take. And that can change, and probably will over time. I imagine I’ll always revisit events in different work, in different forms. The particular stories I choose to tell have themes that are recurring so why shouldn’t they show up in different forms in the work?
What was the process like for both of you to revisit your past selves over the course of working on your respective books? Was there a sense that you had changed a lot, or was there a sense that you hadn’t changed as much as you’d expected in the time since those events took place?
Sean: I think the thing that ended up standing out the most for me in investigating these things were how open all the wounds still were. Even after years of distance and years of work/therapy/evolving as a human, some of the things I opened up inside of myself to put into This Must Be the Place were unfinished on some kind of weird subconscious level. Things that happened between my parents and myself, things that happened on drugs, things that happened when my parents were dying. Obviously, revisiting these happenings dredged the bottom for me, but the thing that I took away from the experience of writing about it was that I have actually survived some shit. I’ll take that. Surviving oneself is some good shit.
Wendy: I feel like my past selves are pretty present with me but when I’m working on a book about a particular period of time it’s almost too much. When I sit down with the voices of those selves for hours at a time I usually feel like I have to physically get away from the work right after, to separate from whatever voice was dominating. For me, that’s usually getting in my car and driving away. Driving is totally a part of the process.
When I reread Hollywood Notebook and when I read others’ thoughts on the book, I realize there are some things about my past selves that are still true, even as everything externally has changed. It’s inseparable, though. I’ve changed radically and in some ways I haven’t changed. Internal ways, usually.
Sean: The physically “getting away” from the work thing is interesting, right? I found myself having to step away from it often, and that’s how i ended up composing an album of weird music to go with the book. All of the emotions and feelings and memories that couldn’t get transcribed from my inside to consumable words got turned into sounds and the manipulation of the spirit through notes and not-notes.
Sean, I’m curious–when in the process did the idea for the album come about? Have you gotten any feedback from people who’ve listened to it while reading the book?
Sean: The album sort of happened as a result of a long discussion with Wendy about my inability to translate certain emotions into words for parts of the book. The book is really spare–for a lot of reasons, most of which are personal preference–and the structure I chose to work within is very constricting. I was making music the entire time I was working on the book, calling them daily “meditations,” and had been sending them to Wendy as a way to communicate where I was at with myself and what was happening within me as I wrote the book. My publisher, Michael J Seidlinger, is one of the few people to express how the music I created changed some of the ways he perceived the book. Maybe Wendy has some thoughts as well?
Wendy: I wouldn’t say the music has changed how I perceive the writing. It’s a pretty fascinating addition, especially to someone like me who only “has” writing–I’m not a musician. It’s another portal to enter stories.
When did the two of you first meet? And, in reading one another’s books, were there things you learned about the other that you hadn’t known since becoming friends?
Wendy: We came across each other on Twitter in January of 2014. I liked something Sean tweeted about True Detective, which had just started airing. A couple of weeks later he shared a story I’d had published in The Collapsar, about mud wrestling, and the way he introduced it made me feel like he got it in a way one hopes readers will. When he tweeted links to his own writing on his site or tumblr, I read, and when I finished, I felt compelled to read his list of publications. I felt pretty immediately that our sensibilities were similar based on what I read, and that I could easily imagine writing collaboratively with this person, which is not a feeling I have about many people. We first met in person a couple of months later in Seattle at AWP.
We’ve been sharing writing since then, so I’ve been fortunate to read pieces of what would become This Must Be the Place in the past year while getting to know Sean at the same time. So while I can’t totally separate what I’ve learned that I didn’t already know from his book versus him, I can say that I feel like I learn more with each reading of the book (I’m a habitual re-reader of certain books).
Sean: Wendy’s story there is a total fabrication.
I’m kidding! All of this is true. I immediately felt connected to the mud wrestling story and the way Wendy used the body as a way to convey so much more in between the words and how by using the body she brought me into her story and every part of my body felt caked in mud and alive. Same as her, I did my usual “hunt” and read everything of hers I could wrap my eyes around and felt the same kind of vibe–I CAN WORK WITH THIS PERSON, THIS PERSON WILL GET WHAT I AM TRYING TO DO, THIS IS A FUCKING MIRACLE–and so far, it has proven to be true. Wendy saw parts [almost all] of This Must Be the Place as it was being constructed and gave me valuable insight. I saw the rawness and magick of Hollywood Notebook before almost anyone and felt like it was a book that was trying to do what I am always trying to do: take you inside and show you what happens when life happens.
Wendy: Did you learn anything new about me from reading Hollywood Notebook, Sean, or did you learn everything you needed to know in Excavation? Hahaha.
Sean: I think one of the things I had an inkling about–but knew for sure when reading Hollywood Notebook–was that you are a keeper of records. Feels like you have done a service to yourself as a memoirist/writer/poet/bruja by keeping a running diary-type of thing and I ain’t gonna lie–I wish I was as committed as you are. All of my shit is drug-hazed and faded and stained with old coffee and bloody fingerprints.
Wendy: Honestly? I’m actually not convinced I’ll learn more about the writer from reading their work–I’ll learn more, I hope, about myself as a human.
Sean: As the kidz say: SAME.
One thing that I was curious about: in both books, you’re both very open about certain things and more reserved about others. What’s the process like in terms of using someone’s name to refer to them versus using a description?
Sean: Hilariously, this is something we talk about with one another all the time: omission is almost more important than what is actually shared. I’ve always had secrets, secret lives and secret friendships and secret hiding places and secret dogs I go out of my way to pet. If I spent all of my time thinking about my secret lives and habits, I’d be like these people who are on social media all the time, whining about how they don’t understand how people can write memoir because it’s so “vulnerable” or “scary” or some shit like that. I want my writing to be scary and vulnerable, it’s why I want blood to come out of myself every time I sit down to write. If there’s no blood or fear, it isn’t me who is writing, it’s some other thing pretending to be me by wearing my face. Changing names and physical characteristics is something Stephen Elliott taught me in a workshop I took with him years ago, and I use it when it is necessary, but it is hardly ever necessary because I am not demonizing anyone in my work other than myself.
Wendy: WIth regard to names and descriptions of others–with Hollywood Notebook I decided I needed to use initials and in some cases, benign cases, names were okay. No one would be harmed if I used names. I really hate changing names, though. I can barely use people’s chosen nicknames. I feel so strongly about names, it’s hard for me to detach from them. But I will when necessary, and everyone important in Hollywood Notebook became initials, which might appear more like a journal entry to begin with.
I once tweeted: “There is an interior life only I will ever have access to and that makes me so very happy.” That interior life will never be published. I feel good about that. Anyone who has read Excavation will at least know this about me: I have a tight relationship with secrets. I see my secret lives as planes running parallel to the one you see me on. That said, I also know how to bring some secrets out into the open that might be necessary–whether for my own integrity, or because I can’t stand living under someone’s idea of “truth” that doesn’t allow for others’. Rupture is sometimes necessary.
One last question: do you find that writing these books has had an effect on whatever you’re working on now?
Wendy: In the sense that everything I write has an effect on what I’m working on now.
Sean: Absolutely. Because of the way I constructed This Must Be the Place, I now have a better understanding of how my memories work and where they are stored in my head and I can use that experience as a touchstone to get into meatier and bigger things. Always thankful for every experience because those experiences make what comes next a little bit easier to swallow and work with.