I Miss My Office

I.
But not for its preciousnesses. My office on campus, that is. (My home I share has only a bedroom and the other room.) Imagine you’re standing in the doorway and able somehow to see ahead of you and to the right at the same time and here’s how it looks:

Even if you don’t know me you’ll note a number of preciousnesses: yarn art, taxidermy, an afghan my grandma crocheted in the 1970s, the wood clock with a plastic caught-marlin face I made for my dad in shop class in 7th grade, the one hand-written rejection I got from The New Yorker in grad school, I could go on. No, there’s no window in there, which I’d always considered a dealbreaker but here we are, eight years in with this space, and I miss it, but like I said not for its preciousnesses.

If I had anybody I could make a deal with on this, I’d be willing to lose all that if it would get me access. I miss just getting to sit in there, alone.

II.
One thing nobody has ever really written about is how writers need a room of their own.

III.
I will try to explain. This morning I took my walk through the park and decided to listen to a podcast, which I don’t usually do, not a podcast listener here, and I looked through suggested ones and decided on Song Exploder, which a friend had once recommended to me, and sorting through the episodes I downloaded the one with Phil Elverum about “I Want Wind to Blow”, the lead track off a record I’ve loved for more than a decade.

I walked through Heroes Grove, which is a long thin stretch of tall redwood trees that smell cedary and wet (I take my mask off in there), and Elverum was talking about how Calvin Johnson gave him a key to Dub Narcotic Studio, and he’d just spend all his time there recording, and trying things out and failing and trying again, and that’s when I missed my campus office, again.

In grad school, I moved in with Neal, into a place we called the Barbie Dream Condo, because it looked like a 1970s angular ski chalet with big round fireplace and exposed beams everywhere. It had two bedrooms and I was given, or I outright took, the other bedroom as my office. The second year we lived there I was given a fellowship that let me off the hook from having to teach to pay my tuition bill, and that was the year I finished my book proposal. I wrote it slowly. A lot of mornings I wouldn’t feel great about my ability to finish the book, or I’d feel lonely, or I’d be disinterested in looking again at porn, or all three of these, and I’d pick up the nearby guitar and try to record a song somebody else wrote. I used Garageband, I learned effects and things, and that year I recorded track-for-track covers of Smog’s Wild Love, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, and Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie.

What was fun about recording other people’s songs? There was the pleasure of getting it right. Most of the chords or tabulature I needed had long before been posted online, but sometimes I had to discover them myself. Like with “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” on Bee Thousand:

It’s a puzzle pleasure, figuring it out, matching the patterns. But the other pleasure was creative, trying to add or insert something that felt like my own. Like how “Pigpen” ends—in the original recording, they dub in a jam from an outtake (“2nd Moves to Twin” featured on King Shit and the Golden Boys) and so I did the same, from everything I’d previously built when trying to record Of Montreal’s “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leofling” (which closes out the perfect Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?). Another example: I hated how “Gold Star for Robot Boy” sounded without a live band behind me, so I turned it into a limping folk waltz.

I’m not a songwriter, and I’m not a loner. I know that I’m a social person, which is why this month especially has been hard, but why then was it so easy to live virtually alone in rural Finland for a month last year? It felt so good to be so alone for so long, and so fulfilling. And the reason was that I had a room of my own: my desk in there was the biggest I’ve ever had, magically, and it sat at the very top of a the house, it was the last door at the end of the hall, and the windows I faced looked out to yellow birch trees rising above suburban roofs, and powerlines three or four magpies would always be perched along.

I got a lot done there. These days I have that time, but not that space.

IV.
Now I’m back to preciousness. Forever I’ve wanted to be the sort of person who could work anywhere. A novelist I know who writes in series, and who publishes sometimes 4 books a year, once met us for a drink, and when we showed up at the bar she was sitting on a bench with her laptop open, writing more of her current novel. It’s always seemed to me a stronger sort of art practice, and I’ve tended to read my inability to follow it as evidence that I’m not really a writer, or that I’m posing, still, at this role I shouldn’t have tried to take up.

Right now I’m sitting in the room that’s not our bedroom. Neal is on the sofa and I’m in the recliner. He’s watching Happiest Season on the TV and I’m listening to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me in my headphones. Normally when I try to work at home I go to the bedroom and sit up in bed, my ass where my head rests at night, but I don’t feel like doing that today, and anyway it hurts my back, so I’m here, distracted every few minutes by something Kristin Stewart or her girlfriend is doing on the screen. It’s okay, the distraction, but this is the kind of writing I can do here. Blog posts. Hallmark Christmas Movie liveblogs. If I can call these things essays they aren’t working very hard, because I can’t.

So I miss the one room on this planet where I’m allowed to go inside and sit, and where I can expect nobody else will come inside. My guess is this is a luxury, that most people on this planet don’t have such a room. So I’m trying not to beg sympathy about this.

The context: this virus forced my workplace to close its dorms, which has led to around $50 million in lost revenue, and my school is broke and poor, comparatively, so this is (or this is being presented to us as) a real budget scare. My salary was cut by 9% a week or so after my partner was laid off at his nonprofit, whose revenue was also cut by the lack of outdoor park events in a pandemic. To save money, my school has closed down all but 2 or 3 buildings, shutting off the power and no longer staffing custodians. This is saving my school a reported $400,000 a month. So even though it’s two blocks from where I’m sitting, and even though nobody is in there, I can’t go into my office because it would require expensive electricity and someone to clean the toilets and urinals after I used them.

When this was made clear to me in August, I decided I was a fool for trying hard to be in my office all the time. Was this really a year to work hard, or was this a year instead to stay mentally and bodily healthy? My school didn’t need me at my best this year.

I still feel that way, but I miss my office. And here’s the thing I’m only just now realizing: it’s not even mine. It’s theirs.

V.
If I had a room of my own, I would just sit in it. That would be the point. Then, in time, I’d write something there I liked.

Form and Formlessness

I.
First, listen to this 6-minute song (you can skip through but I don’t recommend it):

For those of you who skipped it, what you have are 3 chords cycled over and over again: G then A then Bm. It’s a scalar step up that feels like a step down, but the point really is that it goes on and on and on. I’m a devout Bill Callahan fan—or I have been, I no longer am, and what’s changed is what I’m writing this post on forms in artmaking to find out—and this song is my favorite of his, probably, from what’s historically been my favorite of his like 49 records.

When I listen to Knock Knock I’m once again living alone in an attic apartment in Pittsburgh, cooking freezer-aisle pierogies or Wishbone-marinated chicken breasts on the gas stove in the tiny alcove of my kitchen, or I’m washing plastic plates in the wide shallow sink, this record playing across the room on the turntable I keep under my cabinets, next to the microwave my parents bought when I was 7. Callahan’s cycles are cycling, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I’m out of school and all of my school friends have left Pittsburgh for bigger places. Those were lonely years, and I was deeply, woefully closeted to myself, but I can look back on them fondly.

The point: what Smog songs did for me was strip art formally bare and still present an enormous lush world rich with emotion. The form is this: put 2 or 3 chords together, repeat that forever, and then either throw a new chord in, briefly, or shift to a one-line refrain that resolves the tension of repetition as surely as a tonic chord resolves a dominant seventh. More than the romance of Bill Callahan’s world—a world of horse textures and river-longing where each of us listeners becomes a quiet traveler alone in our thoughts far outside of towns—my fandom was built on this minimalism.

Bill Callahan is different now. Now he’s rhapsodic:

Rhapsody or collage? The new idea is that there’s this part of the song, and then once it’s established it’s time for a new part of the song. Then let’s do this. Then let’s do this. Let’s end once some effect is achieved.

If “River Guard” is a poem, or a prayer, “Breakfast” is an essay. Why don’t I like it?

*

II.
What I mean by “is an essay” is that one formal characteristic of the essay is that it has no set form. Essays don’t have prosody to break down their wholes to component parts, and they’re unlike narrative which has causal progression and a “beginning, middle, and end.” Essays’ formlessness disturbs basically every student I teach: we all want someone to give us a structure. I try instead to teach the embrace of formlessness. It’s a feature of essays, not a bug. (I’ve written about this before.)

Now watch this video with Callahan pal and labelmate Will Oldham, where he talks to schoolkids about how he learned songwriting practice:

Oldham’s idea is “why try to reinvent the wheel” when the classic form of songwriting “works”. “The only reason it has to be new is you want to claim something for yourself,” he admits, which is true of most artists. But, newnesses are possible within old forms. If you skipped the above video, here’s the song he gives as an example (and then elaborates more on the idea afterward):

I don’t need to spell out all its newnesses. The great big useful point Oldham makes is that once you’ve established a familiar form (in this case by following a verse with a chorus) then you can get away with unfamiliar content. “Anything you want to put into a song can work when you put it into the song.” You can be weird or dark or unusual in what you sing and how you sing it, because the form indicates to wary, unsure listeners that they’re still on steady ground, and something of what’s expected will soon return.

Anymore Bill Callahan keeps his ground unsteady. I don’t think he’s stopped singing about rivers and horses and brambles, but his forms’ songs feel less to me like worlds I’m invited inside and more like landscapes blurring out the window of a train I’m on, one that’s not stopping anytime soon. I was open to this years ago, and maybe I’ll need it again soon, but not this year.

So what does this have to do with essays? And what does it have to do with Hallmark Christmas Movies?

*

III.
Well, everything. I’ve said before that HCMs are like sonnets—or probably I said that they are as formally predictable as sonnets—and lately I’m trying to figure out if I’m an HCM formalist or something else. (One flaw in English is that there’s no adjectival equivalent for “content”. That is, we’ve got nothing good to complete the analogy, form : content :: formal : _____. “Semantic” comes close, but not close enough. “Material” is closer.) Maybe I’m an HCM materialist.

If HCMs have 9 acts, then Act 1 is “Demonstrate the Woman is good at her job.” Last night we watched an HCM where the Woman was Lacey Chabert and told a shopowner in Brooklyn how a judge ruled that the owner of his building can’t legally raise his rent, so he won’t have to close the store that’s been in his family for generations. The Woman is good at her job of Being A Lawyer. Before that, we watched an HCM where the Woman had a hairless cat’s face and told a panicking bride-to-be that red and white roses would make a far better bouquet than the white peonies her flower shop was out of. The Woman is (questionably, for those of us not in the target audience) good at her job of … it wasn’t clear what her role there was but you won’t be surprised to learn she leaves that job by the end of the movie to plan events at an enormous wintry inn.[*]

I’m going to do my best to list every job I recall the Woman having in an HCM:

  • Event Planner
  • Baker
  • Cafe/Coffee Shop Owner
  • Bookstore Owner or just small-scale retail shopowner in general
  • Reporter/Online Content Producer
  • Lifestyle Blogger
  • Scavenger Hunt Designer
  • Lawyer (rare as hell)
  • Teacher (rare as hell)
  • Executive Assistant
  • Violinist (twice this year alone!)

We haven’t watched the one where Holly Robinson Pete plays the titular Christmas Doctor who has a background in the military, but there’s a doctor-soldier for you. My point here is look at that list. If you know anything about HCM formulaicness it won’t surprise you—the oldest joke about HCMs is how baldly aspirational their Womans’ jobs are, how they seem to flatter something the target audience secretly believes about themselves.

That’s the form. Why can’t we all imagine different content to fill it?

Hallmark has done something pretty special these last few years, which is use the textures of yuletide to make a form as formulaic as the romantic comedy far more baroque than it’s ever been[**]. But not too baroque that the rest of us have had any trouble absorbing its nuances. You don’t need to watch this entire 6-minute commercial for a deodorant that wants you to use it on your “private parts — front and back!” but look at how they pack in all the acts:

We watch an HCM as steadily as we hear a verse-chorus-“middle-8” pop song. We always know what will happen next, so why not make what is happening now more interesting?

I’m not getting at a point, I know. What am I saying? More and more I’m watching Hallmark squander the treasure of its form. I think they are extremely insecure about the reasons people watch and what keeps them coming back for more. I think they have a real fear that if the Woman’s job isn’t aspirationally fun or cute or challenging-but-not-too-stressful, then they’d lose viewers/money.

Why, for instance, have I never seen a nurse in an HCM? I’ve seen far too many soldiers, but none of them has been the Woman. I’ve never seen a Woman be a cop (thank God), but this absence has nothing to do with what cops have become in the dominant imagination after 2020’s exposure of their decades of systemic violence and abuse, and everything to do with Hallmark failing in its imagination of what people will readily watch over the holidays, and how the magic of relating to a protagonist works.

N & I are in disagreement on this, and characteristically I probably in my heart believe he’s right. Last night, we watched the Man and Woman walk into a bakery, and there on the floor were big circle-stickers set 6 feet apart from each other, in a line back from the counter, indicating where people should safely stand in a pandemic, and my heart surged and I literally sat up in my chair. I rewound it and verified what I was seeing—evidence. Something real in the fakest of TV worlds. (Never mind that everyone in the packed bakery was maskless, because no pandemics exist in the HCU.)

I repeated to Neal my old complaint that none of this year’s HCMs has even acknowledged the circumstances of this pandemic, and N asked how I think they could do that. How could they do Almost Kiss with masks on? How could actors enunciate their lines and do carol songs during Town Square Christmas Tree Lighting Applause Scene? And obviously they can’t. If the magic of an HCM lies in its content, the HCM falls apart, but I don’t think it does.

So, finally my point, which is Will Oldham’s point: when your form is strong enough your audience will follow you, and don’t conflate your content with your form.

If you demonstrate the Woman is good at her job and then disappear her to a location outside her routine where in time she’ll help a Niece-Daughter with a seasonal creative project, we will watch them do this with masks on, or with unglamorous jobs to have to go back to, or with a skin color that isn’t white and speaking sometimes a language that isn’t English. We will accept aggressively grumpy people or outright horny ones, we will feel less alone. Or I will. I’ll be grateful that Hallmark has in this way said yes to the pain and confusion I feel about being alive right now.

I’m not even getting into the sex-positive HCMs I can imagine, or the HCMs about working-class people living paycheck to paycheck in ever-unaffordable cities. That we don’t have any made-up stories to watch—on Hallmark or any channel—about us living safely together in a pandemic, that we have only the news of this, is one part of why we’re not living safely in this pandemic.

*

IV.
“Once I realized that formalism was on my side,” Oldham says in the above vid, “it made going to work every day a lot easier.” I’m hoping to teach this in the spring, in my Nonfiction Studio course (I’ve abandoned the MFA workshop model, probably for good, a topic for another post). I’m hoping to spend some time thinking very hard about the forms of the essay—and I don’t mean “the braided essay” or the (ugh) “hermit crab essay”.

I mean essay forms that all of us know as well as songs and HCMs. Does that mean only the 5-paragraph essay taught in most high schools? Well that’s the big one. The toast is another. The prayer. If all an essay is is the written-out portrayal of a thought process, putting ideas out there and coming to some new understandings, we do this all the time, and I want to see what happens to my and my students’ writing once we sign on to a form and unanxiously honor it. If you don’t have to worry about losing your reader, where might the art you make take them?

The essays of late Bill Callahan are not, turns out, what I go to music for. Without formalism I need dynamism, I want the sonic equivalents of a sex worker being disappeared to a small northern town over Xmas and finding not just clients but love, and Callahan is keeping his voice steady, and guitar picking understated, and what’s left are his incredible lyrics. (“With kisses / sweet as / hospital grapes”). His newer songs sound the way my students’ early drafts read and the way HCMs feel to me now: magical at times, but hopefully on their way to somewhere better.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Probably we’ve watched 5 HCMs since I last live-blogged one, and the only thing I can say about my not writing about any of them is that isolation and not seeing family over Xmas has been hitting me hard, and I’ve had little motivation to do anything, and a side effect of this has been to hourly convince myself of my worth-/use-lessness, so to the five or six of you who seem to be enjoying these writeups I apologize. But I also think you aren’t missing out on anything enjoyable. I might be out of things to say.
  2. Though if you watch 1949’s Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Vivien Leigh you’ll be amazed at how many of the HCM acts and tropes they cover, even down to the Woman’s debate between Sensible Man She’s Meant To Marry and Irascible Handsomer Kook She Can’t Stop Thinking About.

Christmas She Wrote [sic] Live Blog

Yesterday I was on the phone with a new contact in the Bay Area literary world about a sponsorship the MFA Program I direct is involved with, and after she opened the conversation asking how I was I gave what’s become my standard answer: “Oh, the same. Same as yesterday and the day before that and the day…” She laughed and said, “You know I read your blog today just to find out who you were, so I suppose I should expect a funny answer.” I was happy, I think, to be so on-brand, but I was also reminded, suddenly, of how front-facing (as they say around these parts) this blog is. Anyway kids, if you’re worried whether anyone will take you seriously if you publish for the world your first-draft thoughts on Hallmark Movies and sexual ignorance in the U.S., I am here to tell you no. No, of course they won’t, but that won’t necessarily preclude you from getting a professional job that treats you like a professional.

Okay so not only is this an Angela Lansbury reference (missing a comma tho; just as Jeopardy! fans know about that exclamation point, we Murder, She Wrote fans know from commas), but it stars Danica McKellar, who is probably the only Hallmark Woman who has co-authored a mathematics paper, on statistical mechanics, with a title I can’t even type because it’s got a script Z (for the set of all integers) I don’t know how to do. Plus also she’s written a handful of books that encourage young girls to get excited by math. I love Danica McKellar. I’m more excited about this HCM than any other, save for the inevitable Candace Cameron Bure one I haven’t seen yet.

Danica’s Woman is a columnist, at a print (!) newspaper, who used to be a therapist, and she lives in New York City, and I’m waiting for a story conflict to kick her to a small Vermont town but nothing so far. So far it’s just this office party in what might be a hotel bar, and the Woman keeps bumping into a Man who might be a ghost, because he disappears quickly after she looks away and nobody else at the party can see him. If it’s a ghost…well, I don’t want to have to think about what I’ll do.

*

Okay he’s not a ghost, the Man, he’s the new editor in chief. He has the face of a sphinx, if Skeletor was a sphinx, and his name is Tripp Window? He’s too old for the Woman, and because he needs to make cuts at the paper he’s ending her column. The news is so sad she’s bailing on Aspen with her gay friend at the paper, and now she’s at home typing a column in voiceover a la Carrie Bradshaw in an inexplicably large all-brick apartment that would make Monica and Rachel gawk. Yes.

Yes! Please let me keep indulging in this fantasy. After a year of sitting in our apartment I would pay money to watch Danica McKellar decorate a dubiously large NYC apartment for Christmas while through the windows snow falls. Please don’t disappear her to a small town, where basically nobody in America actually lives.

Oh wait never mind. She just called her sister and said she’s coming home for Christmas. Home is of course another tiny town. Goodbye New York Christmas. Hello Pineberry, California.

*

You can start up your therapy practice again, the sister is suggesting. “I love writing too much,” says the Woman. Good for her. They’ve given the sister Bakery-Owner and Widow functions and attached the Teen Daughter plug-in. I haven’t seen a single man in the movie other than the gay friend and Tripp Window, who is still in New York and now tasked with rehiring the Woman after her final column created angry readers missing her, so yes Mr. Sphinx is really going to be the Man.

The Boss-Boyfriend, that’s what we’re heading for. He’s personally flying to California because the Woman won’t answer his calls. He won’t leave town until she agrees to come back to the paper. They are competitive these two. Is this fun? It is yes, I’ve decided. There’s an extreme pleasure in watching two people who loathe each other move through that loathing toward romance and sexual desire—well sexual desire is compatible with loathing of course. I hope they hate each other well into Act III. Or Act 6? I read somewhere that HCMs have 9 acts, one of which is Almost Kiss. So another feather in the cap of Hallmark is how, without being big braggarts about it, they’ve found a dramatic structure that doesn’t worry about making Aristotle happy.

Another part of the pleasure of keeping the Man and Woman hating each other is that it gives us as long a fantasy as possible of the Woman possibly, maybe, if only, going her own way. ‘Cause see, now the Woman is working on a column for the Pineberry newspaper, and she’s got family here, and so maybe she doesn’t need anybody but her own strength and courage to make a great change.

Wait shut up it’s snowing.

If you watch Home Alone after a bunch of HCMs, as we did last night, the fake snow on the ground of Kevin’s street is gaudy, it’s an embarrassment: glassy and pebbled. The fakey-est of fake. Before Hallmark became really what it is now, the fake snow they used was another embarrassment, like cotton batting laid on top of grass. The snow they’ve got now is just like, oh it’s gorgeous snow. It’s the greatest snow, this snow, chunky like cotton balls but floating down past the actors’ faces in a way that almost defies physics. It flutters like the snow in those high-end snowglobes you’d like to have just one of on your mantle but can’t talk yourself into dropping that much on during a vacation—and how are you going to fly it home without it breaking? That snow. You hear it crunch under their boots while they walk around the tree lot set up on a corner of the town’s decked-out main street.

The not-so secret of HCMs: they don’t have to say or be anything. They just have to stand where it looks nicer to be than where I am right now.

*

The Man is originally from San Francisco. (The U.S. West is showing up in the HCU this year.) He’s “not good at that whole work-life balance thing,” which makes sense given that he’s the editor-in-chief of a New York City daily and has decided it’s no big deal for him to stay in this small town, sipping coffee at the Widow Sister’s café, staying up all night reading the Woman’s past columns to better understand her. No, there’s no pressing work needing him back at New York, why would there be?

The Woman has confessed that she’s working on an autobiographical romance novel that she hasn’t found the ending to yet. This, I think, is the Christmas she’s written, titularly.

*

The retirement home in this town of Pineberry, California, is called “The Pineberry”, which wouldn’t have the same effect in another town, like Boise, say. “We’re staying at the Boise.” The Internet tells me that pineberries are white strawberries with red seeds. See?

They were discovered, pineberries, in 2002, so this must be a very new town. Now the Woman has run into what has to be an ex, given how awkward this is between them. He’s a beefy doctor who wears a tie and has the best ass I’ve seen on the Hallmark Channel. He has sad eyes and his hair is just starting—just a touch, just like an angel’s whisper’s worth—to go grey, and it’s infuriating that he’s not going to get to be the Man.

Let’s talk about the chemistry between the Woman and chosen Man: they make the kinds of jokes I hate watching people pretend to enjoy, lines like “Thanks for the ride … but I’m only going to give you 4 stars because there was no phone charger!” or “My cooking comes with a warning label: Eat At Your Own Risk!” Etc. Then in a heartbeat one of them Gets Real, and soon they’re re-establishing boundaries and remembering that they’re boss-employee. I don’t buy it, and I don’t want it to happen. I don’t want the Woman to fall for her new boss who has too little going on in his life.

God, Danica McKellar is pretty. Her face is a campfire or some other object I just want to stare into and watch the shifting facets of.

*

Jesus, everyone’s here. The gay friend has just shown up in Pineberry, right at the exact moment that we’ve learned that the Man cut his job, too. So this is the All Is Lost moment, even though the Man and Woman aren’t yet close to kissing, nor is the Woman ready to say yes to getting her job back. Now the Woman has decided with the gay friend to host a cocktail Christmas event they have one day to plan—why are they doing this?—and the only venue they could find is owned by the boyfriend of the impossibly sexy Ex, who is moving back to Pineberry to practice medicine there.

The bar owner is hitting on the gay friend, so here’s another marginal gay romance. Why don’t I hate it? Well, I’m fully invested in this Danica McKellar Is A Writer story. But also because this is evolving, this new romance, in ways that feel as real as things get in the HCU—this is the first time the gay friend and Ben, the bar owner, have seen each other since high school, and Ben was clearly not out in high school, and it’s too weird to come out and say “Hi, I’m gay now too and want to engage with you romantically,” so their banter, the gays’, is, sure, goofy, but it feels honest and, and it feels like a development to the gay friend character’s arc, and it’s not being played for attention or headlines. Good for Hallmark.

And now the Woman’s got two men vying for her attention at this cocktail thing: the Man and the Ex. Good for Danica.

*

But is this movie coming together? The Man, in reading through the Woman’s old columns, has reminded her of her early spirit and passion when she first started that job, and this has given her the inspiration to finish her romance novel, and from this, she has let her gratitude lead her to fondness and possibly even lovingness. She’s falling for the boss, who is leaving town tomorrow. “Apparently, the mountain air has gotten to me,” he just said. “And, um, so have you.”

Pretty good line. Still don’t want them to end up together though, and ultimately this is what’s making Christmas She Wrote the standout HCM it is: it’s got me emotionally wanting some specific future for the Woman—one I’m sure I’m not going to get—but normally I just sit back and grumpily watch while the Woman achieves the dull trajectory they’ve fully forecasted in the third scene.

Oh shit. Oh shit! The Woman gave a printout of her novel (which she finished the first draft of yesterday) to the Man, who read it in full in one night and sent it to his contacts in the publishing biz, and even though they want to publish it (it’s that easy, kids! every published writer publishes their first drafts because that’s how talented they are), she feels so betrayed that we’re at one hell of an All Is Lost moment. (Another one!) Because what this movie’s cleverly done in setting up the Terrible Idea of Boss-Boyfriend is duplicate the “All” of All Is Lost—they cannot be lovers, and the Woman cannot return to the job she left.

The way out of All Is Lost, though, is quick and easy: the Woman has learned that the Man quit his job the next morning. And he left a message with the innkeeper that the Woman is “pretty special,” I think the phrase was. So in less than 12 hours he’s shown himself to be (a) a man of integrity not scheming and untrustworthiness, and (b) a total sweetheart sweetie to love forever.

*

Fine. Fine. The Ex, the Woman has clarified to him, is the kind of guy who needs adventure and won’t be happy with a 9–5 in Pineberry. And sure enough he was awarded a grant to go be a doctor abroad. “You’re an incredible woman, Kayleigh,” he said, and left the room and her life forever. Damn it. But also, good for the Woman. I wish she’d have a similar insight about the Man, but no, here he is in a navy suit that’s looking purple in this lighting or maybe it’s our new 4K TV did I mention? What event is this where they’re all coming to a fore with their plotlines? It’s not quite the town’s big Xmas party, but everyone is in suits and dresses.

Okay wait. There’s still a chance these two won’t get together, but will part ways with mutual respect for each other. He’s taking a new job in San Francisco, so…. Please please please. Don’t kiss…?

They kissed.

Final Grade: A-

Various Writers Come Back from the Dead to Critique My Work for Citysearch.com

This is something I wrote 15 years ago for an end-of-the-year grad student reading, and I’m posting it now because of the Santa element and because it exudes a lot of grad-school odors. Odors? Let’s say aromas. These are 100% taken from work I did at my first full-time job, writing content for pittsburgh.citysearch.com based on what I was taught as “The Citysearch Voice” (I went to a training in Columbus, Ohio, one weekend and stayed at the same hotel they shot the pool scene from Little Man Tate in.)

The Santaland Diaries: Christmas isn’t all “ho, ho, ho” — David Sedaris shows you the dark side of Yuletide.

Overview
We’ve all considered the possibilities of annual department-store Santas being old, lecherous drunks in need of easy money, but what about the backstage lives of the helper elves? Usually younger and less in the spotlight, what sorts of delusional or hard-up art students flock to fill those pointy, green shoes? Perhaps most importantly, to what lengths will parents go to get snapshots of their kids on Santa’s lap? Actor Eric Woodall reveals the astonishing world of synthetic North Poles.

The Background
With “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris planted his feet firmly on the stage of contemporary memoirists. “SantaLand” started as a series of appearances on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and was eventually published in his first book, “Barrel Fever.” Both aforementioned books are nice collections of short, comical pieces, but it’s “Naked” (Little Brown & Co., 1997) that everyone should read—everyone who doesn’t mind laughing out loud in public places, that is.

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Willa Cather responds:

Years later, you can brandish the Citysearch Voice all you want as an excuse of why this preview is so achingly dreadful, but even this doesn’t mollify the fact that memoirists don’t have a stage any more than three uninspired questions make up a satisfactory overview. And what, pray, was the point of listing publication information after “Naked” (and not, notice, after the other two books you mention)? Do you honestly think anyone goes to their bookstore armed with Little Brown & Co, 1997 as a means of finding what they’re looking for? I’m dead, and have never stepped foot in a Barnes and Noble, but I can assure you, they didn’t in my day and they sure as heck don’t in yours. Whatever pretensions I had throughout my career, I wore on my sleeve, but watching you hide them behind helpful info in “The Background” makes me feel as humble as Mary. Pathetic.

Anal Cunt: They’re wittier than you think.

The Band
Eminem? He’s harmless. If you’re looking for offense, seek out Boston punk band Anal C**t. On albums with such titles as “Everyone Should Be Killed” and “I Like It When You Die” the band’s songs talk about gays, violence, loser bands, and everything else you can think of. Sample song titles: “Recycling is Gay,” “The Internet is Gay,” “You Play on a Softball Team,” “I Intentionally Ran Over Your Dog.”

The Catch
If you think A.C. is just stupid, take a look at “Having to Make Up Song Titles Sucks” and “I’m Not Allowed to Like A. C. Anymore Since They Signed to Earache” and “MTV is My Source for New Music.” A.C. is smart enough to know who it is and how the world perceives it, but it doesn’t care. What band embodies more of a punk spirit than A.C.? Their name is unprintable, their songs are fast and loud, and their lyrics are offensive. It’s just what we need in this era of Orlando-based bubblegum.

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Oscar Wilde responds:

This … “orlando-based bubblegum” as you call it is all very new to me—I only now, after a thrilling and shameless obsession with Take That, just started paying attention, now that they’re all tabloid fodder—but it seems to me that “just what we need in this era,” as you say, is something more than noisy Yanks with an odd obsession with pederasty. Recycling? The Internet? Is everything gay to these men? I’d give them my number, but something about their name makes me think I’d lose my … well, I’ll just say interest.

One more thing: I’d like to draw your attention to the phrase, “gays, violence, loser bands, and everything else you can think of.” Everything else you can think of? Am I to understand that gays and violence are the alpha and omega of your contemporary experience, with maybe “loser bands” thrown in for a bit of flair? Look, I’m dead, and even I knew you were gay when you wrote this drivel. Yes, it’s a shame you didn’t yet, but does it excuse such laziness and harm to our cause? It doesn’t. Pathetic.

An Evening with Dave Eggers: An entertaining reading from the country’s most exciting young writer.

The Author
If Dave Eggers is on a crusade against irony, skepticism, and derision, you should probably pay attention, because isn’t it time we got past these things? Aren’t they tired? They are, and Eggers should know. After 2000’s autobiographical “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (the work, here, is the genius, not Eggers himself as so many assume) made dozens of top ten lists, critics across the country labeled him as “ironic” and “Gen-X’y” when he isn’t either of these. What you get in “A.H.W.O.S.G.” and Eggers’ quarterly “McSweeney’s” is the most direct and genuine writing we’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Event
Past Eggers readings have included Panda costumes, audience requests, kung-fu demos, puppet shows, and guest appearances by writer friends, firemen, drill sergeants, and lots of scientists. You will have a good time no matter how familiar with Eggers’ writing you are.

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Dave Eggers responds:

I’m not dead, actually, but um … thanks, I guess, for the write-up. I remember you at that reading, I think, sitting in like the 4th row, a little bit to my left. You were laughing way too much. Practically at everything I did. You were even laughing at Neal Pollock’s embarrassing slam poetry, which made nobody else laugh. When I stood up there on the stage and looked down at your open mouth, I could think of the word “cavernous” and I could think of nothing else.

I also seem to remember you wearing a McSweeney’s shirt that was a size or two too small for you, but maybe I’m imagining things. If not, it was pretty pathetic.

Oh and speaking of which, don’t think that by doing all this you’re disassociating yourself from the McSweeney’s fanboydom of your past. You and I both know you’re stealing your use of the word “pathetic” here from that piece about Ezra Pound we published on the Web years ago. Years ago.

Overkill: At least give them credit for being around so long.

The Skinny
Overkill has a name like Overkill and boasts a 15-year existence. The band plays straight-up metal, the audience for which has waned to the point where you yourself might be thinking “Overkill is right.” But give the band credit for doing just what it wants. Starting in basements and garages after singer Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and bassist D.D. Verni met each other through music-mag help wanted ads, the band has released over 12 CDs. Here are some great album titles: “F*** You and Then Some,” “I Hear Black,” “The Years of Decay,” and “Necroshine.”

Starting as a cover band, and inspired by the bands (AC/DC, Judas Priest, et al.) it covered, Overkill naturally adheres to the loud and chunky metal sound. Enjoy as  relic or as something refreshingly different.

The Crowd
Metalheads too cool to read this far down into the piece.

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Emily Dickinson responds:

You insinuate that metalheads are illiterate. You use the term “metalheads.” You begin immediately with a superior attitude that is carried through to the final word. You use the band’s name against itself. You begin a sentence with a dependent clause three times the length of its independent complement. And once again, you let a band’s titles stand in for your own writing. What am I to say to all this?

How about: Bravo?

Let me ask you this: Can you imagine a good 250-word preview for Overkill? What would it look like? I’ll tell you: garbage. I’m dead, and have never seen the Internet, and even I know it would be garbage. A writer is an artist and an artist has a singular vision, and writing in service of a national company owned by the man who inspired this “Mr. Burns” that everyone of your age loves is no way to go through life. My dead colleagues are too proud and too dead to tell you this, and that makes them cowards.

So buck up, tiger. Just because all these previews are pathetic doesn’t mean you are. But in the future, might I recommend avoiding Web publishing altogether? Try fascicles. For me, they did wonders.