Oh, This is the Stage

The stage at La Paloma Sabanera is about four inches high. You could barely call it a stage at all. It's a step, really, a raised platform butting up against the windows right next to the door. Before closing time, there are two round tables and four chairs stationed there, and if you want to put on a show you've got to wait for the locals to finish their coffee and gossip before you can move the tables. Sometimes this takes a while, because lots of people use La Paloma for the kind of meeting where you really just want to hang out with a colleague in a pleasant place and say at the end, "Great meeting," with a jokey expression on your face that means that it didn't really feel like work. You got an excuse to hang out at La Paloma, that's all. I've seen this expression on the faces of the unemployed and on the face of the mayor at La Paloma on the same day. Everyone knows it's a relief just to be there. Once those tables are empty, you have to lift the tables down onto the floor and rearrange the room a little bit. You throw your bag of books, or your guitar, or your clipboard, or your cables on the couch, and then you get down to the pleasant work of turning every chair in the room to face what was a second ago a restaurant and is now a STAGE. You're going to do something weird up there, something a little too big for its narrow depth. I've always loved watching people see La Paloma's stage for the first time. "Oh," they say sometimes, if they're musicians or actors, imagining a grand theater. People are always surprised or disappointed for a second, and that's the moment that they have to get down to the real work of being the artist they want to be. That very moment, they have to realize that they're going to make the best of this cafe/stage and that they're going to be absolutely fine. For some people, that moment is a millisecond, so short they don't even feel it; for some, it lasts too long and they start to panic. But everyone has that initial thought: oh, this is the stage.

The first time I performed at La Paloma Sabanera was as an improviser, and I stood in front of the door, one foot hovering on the stage, one foot off, deciding when to enter. I was blocking the door and a couple of times I had to get out of the way so that people could come in and see our show. My improv company Sea Tea was just starting to do long-form, experimental stuff, and we booked a few days with La Paloma to force ourselves to put it in front of people. Up until that point, we'd mostly done it in the living room of two of our players, and every time someone died during a scene and ended up on the floor, a corgi named Penny would run over and like his or her forehead. We were all really young and were rehearsing around dogs and roommates, or we lived in studio apartments with no space, or we were driving over from our parents' houses an hour away just to do some weird improv in a living room. It was a great time, but it was also a hard time, because just about all the improv we did was terrible. Just awful stuff, confusing or pretentious or something we vaguely remembered from old SNL episodes. But two or three nights a week we hung out in living rooms or restaurant basements, trying to get better at something we were pretty sure we would eventually be good at. In retrospect, it was insane; in retrospect, it was impressive that we beat on against the current of our own imperfections.

At some point, somebody said a phrase that I now realize is Hartford's "open sesame," Hartford's "Speak Friend and Enter." Somebody said, "I'll talk to Virginia."

We talked to Virginia. She said, sure, do a show here. She always does. We did a couple of shows that went like this: we'd do a few short, easy improv games; a band would play; we'd do a long-form set with a few scenes that were just ok and a few scenes that were a little more than ok, and then the band would play again. We took the scenes the audience of fifteen or twenty-five people liked, the little places that they laughed, and we built our style and our company off of that.

At every show we had to explain what improv comedy was. That's how it goes in a little city where you're trying to do something new. But at every show at La Paloma, the audience would nod and look open-faced at us, gazing at us, heightened four inches off the ground, and treat us with respect and buy into the grand illusion that we were towering over them, professionals, artistes. "Sure," the audience seemed to say every time, "it sounds perfectly reasonable that you're going to mime eating turkey-flavored ice-cream while wearing matched t-shirts. Show us more!"

I went to so many events like that at La Paloma. Events that had to be explained, events that were rough around the edges. Sure, play this song you just wrote last weekend. Sure, read this thing that's half a poem and half a blog post and half a video game script (and sure, it's three halves, who cares?). Sure, this is a wind-machine made out of a trash can, let's see if it works. Sure, yes, I will close my eyes and listen to the radio with you.

At one point a few years ago, when I was hemming and hawing around about being a writer with a capital W, no doubt complaining and whining to myself that there was just no space for me, that there was no community of writers here, that I couldn't get published so what was the point, wah wah wah, and I used to go to all these awesome reading series in New York and why didn't those exist in Hartford, someone said to me, "talk to Virginia." And I walked over to La Paloma after work and I said, "Hi Virginia, I'd like to start a reading series," and she said "Great!" and then for two hours, one night a month, for twenty-two straight months, ten writers would read their work. That is two hundred and twenty readings. That is two hundred and twenty instances of a writer stepping up on a four-inch stage and putting their work out there, because someone said "sure." And the readings got better and better and better. The writers kept coming back, even when there were only six or seven people in the audience, and even when there were fifty new ears they had to put their work in front of.

Virginia says "sure." She's said that to so many bands and musicians I have trouble keeping count of them all. She's maintained a space where doodling as an art form and all-night novel-writing sessions are perfectly normal.

The times I have felt most moved in La Paloma, though, are during the improv mixers organized by Sea Tea's Vlad the Improv-er. If you haven't been to a mixer-- and why would you have, if you aren't someone with a secret dream to try to do one little improv scene over a warm beer-- then it's hard to describe why it's so great. It has something to do with people coming into Hartford from far, far away, sometimes out of state, because they are desperately hoping to meet someone else who's kind of funny and fun to do scenes with. Vlad calls people up on stage, matching them up-- a veteran who performed in New York for ten years and was on an award-winning team, paired with a mom who's never done it and finally got a babysitter-- and then they shake hands and they do a scene. They just do a scene. They step up on the stage, they think oh shit, this is the stage, and then they think oh, everything's fine. And then the music comes on and they step down. It ends up being so simple that they love it, and then they come back. Some of those people are on excellent professional teams now.

This all makes it sound so easy, like La Paloma is a magical place and Virginia is some wizard who makes it all happen. But that isn't true at all. La Paloma is the place where you put your money where your mouth is. Since it exists, and since Virginia always says yes, you have no excuse. Make your art. Get your ass in there and pull out your calendar and pick a night. If you don't, it's your own fault. Nothing is more liberating than that. Do it. Go. Make it happen. Bring your audience. Explain what you're about to do. Make some bad art. This is the place for it. You're going to have to make bad art before you make good art, and that's what this place is for. It's an excuse-evaporator, a community-maker, a screen, a chapbook, your first LP. Really though, what it has is your first audience.

It works on the other end, too, the spectator end. If you think there's nothing to do in Hartford, no one trying new things, no one putting themselves out there, no individual artists, no risk-takers, no political action, no real conversation, no debate-- go to La Paloma. And if you still don't see what you want, maybe it's time to stop being a spectator. Get off the table, get out of the chair, move them aside-- oh, you're on the stage. Oh, this is the stage. You were on it the whole time.

La Paloma is many more things-- food and coffee and conversation and the best place in its neighborhood and everything else you've heard, if you live in Hartford, and everything you're imagining, if you live somewhere far away. I have made so many friends here that I can't remember specific meetings any more; those friendships have all blurred into one mellow memory. I had a friend who had moved away to Ecuador four years ago, seemingly forever, and just last week I ran into her at a La Paloma event. She's moved back and that's one of the places she went to first. Of course. Of course it was. I was overjoyed to see her but it felt so inevitable.

La Paloma is closing down. You must have heard by now. If you're from here, you heard it directly; if you're not from here, you heard it echoed in some other messy little space where people gather. A place where you know someone must be pretty cool just for showing up there. A place that answers that little call in your sternum that we so rarely acknowledge out loud: I need a place where I can try something new, where I can show up alone. I need to have a night that is truly surprising. I need the possibility that I am something more than what I was yesterday, even if I'm broke, or an alcoholic, or an introvert, or depressed, or just here in Hartford all of a sudden for god knows what stupid job transfer or family obligation or accident. I need a place.

When someone asked me where I'd move Syllable, my reading series, I went unusually silent. "I need a place," I said, "where if five people show up it's not embarrassing, but if sixty people show up, they can fit."

So it is with gratitude that I say goodbye tonight to La Paloma, and thank you for being my secret garden. I admit that when I came to Hartford the city seemed dead and full of weeds, depressed and angry and fraught. And I was, and still am sometimes, those things too. There were many fertile grounds in Hartford where I was able and allowed to repair and grow my garden, but only La Paloma has felt like a skeleton key. I wish I had made better use of it. I wish I'd been less selfish with my time, and spent more money here so that it would not be closing down. It's so hard not to feel personally responsible for its closing, since this place and this person gave me so many chances every day to make something of myself, and it. It is a reminder to me that there was always a first stage and a person who said "sure."

I have played on many bigger stages since those first improv shows at La Paloma. We had to move the mixers because we opened our own studio and we were overjoyed to fill it. We don't have to explain what the hell it is we're doing any more. We did that work at La Paloma. And so many of the bands that played their first shows here have moved on to New York or were playing earlier today at internationally acclaimed festivals. Or the radio producers who frequent this counter continue to broadcast to a hell of a lot more than thirty people. Or the films that were screened here were played for rooms of hundreds. We outgrew you, La Paloma, because that's what you allowed us to do. And we are so grateful. And we're so sorry that we didn't make it easier for you to stay here forever. And we promise that we will make that space somewhere else. And we recognize that it's our job now to do so.

There is something here, in this last 24 hours before those doors close, that I want to make sure I remember. In this little space, even if we went on to bigger stages, we were not discovered. This was never a place to show up and be recognized and made famous or talented. We had to move the tables ourselves. And then we pointed out to others: this is the stage. But, despite all I've said, it really never was a stage. There are no wings to wait in, there are no stairs to sneak up. At that first show, I was standing with one foot on, one foot off, ready to rise when the scene needed it. That's not a stage. That's a step. And when you're ready, you take it on your own.


La Paloma is closing tomorrow, June 27th. Tonight, in celebration of five years of incredible programming, there will be an awesome marathon performance of 40 bands, writers, comedians, radio producers, storytellers, artists, filmmakers and doodlers. Free, of course.

Blume-a-thon #1: The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo

I am reading the collected works of Judy Blume for reasons I detail here. You're in luck: this is the first one. You haven't missed anything yet. Poor Freddy. He's in the middle of an impressive older brother and an adorable younger sister. Every day of his life is something like Alexander's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad day. He can't do anything right. We know how it is.

This is Blume's first book, and is a very simple picture book. My edition is 39 pages of both large text and illustration. Each chapter is perhaps 300 words. Basic plot: Freddy feels lonely and un-special as a middle child. He signs up for the school play because it's something his brother had never done, and despite being too little for a speaking part, is cast as a Green Kangaroo. The Green Kangaroo. He practices hopping around and does a great job, and basically finds his niche.

I was not a middle child, but I owned this book when I was young. I remember feeling connected to Freddy's need to do his own thing, and many years after I read it, I experienced a very similar theatrical awakening. What Blume does well here is what she always does well: she expresses the worries of kids in a respectful and believable way. She knows that if a seven year old were really cast as a green kangaroo, they'd have a busy two weeks practicing hopping. She knows that green freckles might be sort of overwhelming. She knows that this moment of self-reflection and of transformation is real for every actor, right before opening night: "He jumped over to the mirror. He looked at himself. He really felt like a Green Kangaroo."

Everything turns out great, of course, though we don't get the details of the play-- just what it was like to be Freddy within the Kangaroo. It ends, of course, on a happy note: Freddy was happy being Freddy. We knew it would go this way.

But look at this illustration (by Amy Aitken). Freddy's brother and sister are sliding into their own private jealousy. These are themes-- jealousy, rivalry, the ambiguity of sucess-- that Blume will return to again and again. Yes, this is her first and simplest, but there are hints of Judy throughout this story. Just wait until she puts these sorts of unreliable narrators in situations with much more social meaning and ambiguity.


ImageDuring Banned Book Week last fall, my coworker Mallory and I got to talking about our favorite censored authors. There are, of course, the high-profile scandals-- Salman Rushdie, J.D. Salinger, and of course, my employer, Mark Twain. Lots of people are also aware the Harry Potter series has been widely banned for promoting an evil lifestyle (wizardry is so insidious, isn't it?). Major fans of Banned Book Week, however, know that the big stars of the censorship discussion are children's book authors. If only I could tell Madeline L'Engle, who died in 2007, what a profound effect her strange books about physics and faith had on me. If only I could tell Dr. Suess, who died in 1991, how much of my moral compass was formed by the boldness of his work. If only I could tell Shel Silverstein, who died in 1999, how fabulous his bizarreness was, and how it opened a lot of dark and awesome avenues in my young brain. If only I could tell Judy Blume...

Oh, wait. I could. Judy Blume is alive and well and actively speaking against censorship at every chance she gets. (See my post about heroes a while back-- I think I finally have an answer.)

So I decided I would tell her. She's very active on twitter-- she tweeted eight times on Thursday, talking to her fans, talking about how much she, too, loved Beverly Cleary (also still alive), telling us what she's writing, and chatting about the hilariousness of spray on makeup. She's great. She always was, and she still is.

So I wrote Judy Blume an email asking her to come and visit us at the Mark Twain House. As I was writing it, I began to get very emotional. I realized that because of Judy (and all the aforementioned authors, as well as several more), I loved to read from a very early age. And because I loved to read I loved to write. And because of both of those things, I have this blog, I have this podcast, I have a BA in Literature and an MFA in Writing, and I work at Mark Twain's house.

I said all this in a weepy yet, I must assume, professional email. We send these sorts of requests out all the time-- at least twice a week. The response rate is perhaps 2%.

But Judy responded. Responded saying she wanted to come. As my coworkers can describe, I melted away with joy and have been overjoyed ever since. It was a secret for a long time, that Judy was coming, and now it's been announced, and every time I tell a person between the ages of twenty and forty-five, they too melt away. We will sell many tickets to our Judy Blume moderated discussion. But it gets better.

I'm the moderator.

Judy and I, hanging out on stage, talking about books and writing and censorship and Twain and who knows what else. I can't wait. It's going to be on June 21st and you can find out more event information here.

So, in order to prepare, I'm going to be reading the entire collected works of Judy Blume. I already have them all (there may or may not have been a buying spree online moments after finding out I was moderating). The best part is: I'll be writing a little blog piece about each and every one, mulling them over and coming up with my discussion questions. And you, dear readers, can help me, if you'd like.

If you're not familiar with her writing, I promise you it is worth an academic look. It's incredible to think about the sheer number of children's anxieties and problems that she wrote about. (This is why she was banned.)

I can't wait. I hope you can't either. Keep a look out for the "Blume-a-thon" tags in my posts. And see you on June 21st.

Where Books Come to Dance

The other night I finished reading Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's puzzle-novel about how human beings prey on each other physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's the sort of book that you finish, close, and think about while staring into space for a good half hour. Then you desperately want to talk to someone about it. You want to undress it, to examine it, to further understand it by dissecting it with a friend. When I was a graduate student at Bennington, my fellow students and I spent many hours talking about books. Many, many, many hours. Not only the hours sitting around a conference table woefully comparing our work with those of the masters (although, of course, we did that-- I had an incredible year-long streak of reading only nonfiction that people mentioned in the workshops), but hours upon hours of sitting around in a student lounge debating why It was so weird, or which Faulkner we were likely to go back to. I distinctly remember a 3:00 AM wine-induced argument about whether "the canon" was just east coast academic snobbery, and what books were in it. Then we'd get up at 9 AM and go to workshops and talk about more books. It was an incredibly good time. The best way to characterize this environment, really, was the game running Charades: one of our number insisted that we play a massively long and adrenaline-rushed version of the miming game. Our whole class of twenty-five people participated. You haven't lived until you've seen a bunch of book nerds miming "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," or "What is the What," or "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

I miss all that. Others do too. I don't want to read strangers' reviews on Cloud Atlas; I want to gab about it with a bunch of people who've read it too. I've been in book clubs, and they're great, but they almost always fall apart within six months. I want to know that I can comfortably compare a books to either Italo Calvino or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, and that my companions will either know what I'm talking about or be curious to find out. Most of all, I want these awesome people to tell me what to read.

In this spirit, my friends Tod and Rider from Bennington gave me a call. They missed our 2 AM book chats, too. They asked me to read books and talk about them, using the magic of the internet. And so.... we launch Literary Disco, a podcast.


We've recorded about six episodes so far, and I have to say, I'm having the time of my life. Sometimes it's just the three of us. Sometimes we bring in an outside writer and we all talk about a book together.

Basically, all you need to know is that we're a bunch of writers talking about books. We love them and we laugh at them. It's awesome.

So if that interests you, please listen and subscribe and write and read.

Summer gluttony

I am a glutton for summer.

Right now it's 6:52 AM on Sunday, July 3rd. There is no reason in the world that I should be awake right now, since I had yesterday off and I'll have tomorrow off, too. I am smack in the middle of a long vacation and here I am, watching Buffalo (our cat) watch the sunrise, making my way through a mug of coffee, reading and writing my way through the morning. There are few things I love more than the pleasure of saying, "man, I did so much on my days off."

Really, I am awake because yesterday I got too much sun and exercise and went to bed at nine thirty. Now I have a little sunburn and a little headache, and at 5:30 I decided just to get up and pack in another few excellent hours of July.

Yesterday Greg and took the Vespa down to Collinsville, Connecticut, a little town on the Farmington River. How many years we've been driving around on that thing I don't know, but I can't get enough-- the windiness of the ride, the restfulness of holding on to Greg's back, the houses that come one after the other for miles and miles. Taking back roads on a Vespa acclimates you to the interconnectedness of towns; some are little and go by in a green flash, others are bordered by strip malls. Highways are basically teleportation devices where you're just deposited in your town of choice, but on a Vespa you really have to get there. Connecticut is dense and varied, and there are a lot of different ways to arrive in any place.

We went out on the river with our friends Dan and Marta and their puppy Wallace. Their little family was in a canoe, Greg and I were each in a kayak-- all the better to race with. The river was looking wide and cold and deep and I could not have been happier. We paddled around, working on our rowing form (both Greg and I adore boats; he rowed crew for years, while I spent many summers in my grandfather's canoe looking for turtles), cooing at poor Wallace. We drifted between ducks and geese, and avoided fishermen. We went swimming in the cold July river-water. We paddled up to a bridge and turned around under it, just for the principle of making it that far. Greg lost a flip-flop, helpfully designating this particular river trip as "the time Greg lost a flip-flop."

Lately I have noticed that I cannot get enough of this kind of thing. I am a glutton for summer. I will eat a hot dog for the sake of summer in the way that people who love Christmas will fanatically bake sugar cookies. If I don't go swimming in a lake, a river, a pool, and the ocean-- each at least twice, and five times for the ocean-- I consider the summer an abject failure. I also need to read an equally gluttonous number of six-dollar novels, respectable classics, and nonfiction on horrifying topics. Some summer reads of yore: Anna Karenina, Helter Skelter, Columbine (those last two back-to-back... not recommended),  The Dud Avocado, I Capture the Castle, and a truly astounding number of Agatha Christie mysteries. Should I be ashamed? I am not. We have a cultural agreement that anything is allowed to be read on the beach, even if we scoff at those books later. Every summer I remember the pleasure of unsweetened iced tea and of thunderstorms. Every summer I remember the pleasure of getting tired from too much sun. Every summer I remember that everyone looks both stupid and awesome in cutoffs.

After losing to Greg in one final kayak race, after a new pair of flip flops, after sandwiches and lemonades, after wearing the puppy out, after a visit to a bookstore (and three new books), after backyard beers, after a long Vespa ride home, after a dinner of frozen pizza, after watching Cars-- I realized I was a little sunburned. I wandered up to bed with a magazine and a glass of water and I read until I fell asleep. At nine thirty. I said goodnight, summer, I'll see you early tomorrow. And here I am. Hello, summer. I hope you last a long time.

The Girls Who Made Me

Tonight I am working on an essay about girls from literature that shaped my personality. Not influenced: shaped. Constructed. Without these girls in my life I would not be Julia. Their names are: Charlotte Doyle, Meg, Matilda, Turtle, Elizabeth Wakefield, Samantha, Mary, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Frank, Belle, Ariel, Margaret, Velvet, Clara, and Lyra. And, being entirely honest, half the members of the babysitters club. And, lord, DJ Tanner, too. Sorry, arbiters of taste.

There are also the ur-girls, the ones that even I knew were ur-girls at the time: Alice, Jo, and Dorothy. And the girls I recognize like cool cousins now, but are too late for personal impact: Hermione and Katniss.

I will write this essay because in some ways, I realize, this is the essay, the self that was created (I can't even bring myself to write "the self that I created" because the person that is "I" now is really the industrious work of these fictional hands; the "my" in myself feels collective) when I was busy making a person of myself. I am excited about it and somewhat scared by it. The adult version of this girl, these girls, is walking through adult looking glasses and accidentally stumbling onto tornados, chopping off hair, making the best of strange mansions. And this adult girl needs to go back to her younger self; but sadly, that younger self is fluidly swishing around in memories and ideas and doubt.

Luckily there are fragments of self dutifully recorded and mass-published. I will revisit and report back.

What do you think? Sound interesting?

Ten Real Twain Quotes

I spent quite a lot of my morning fighting the internet about a misattributed Twain quote. More on that experience in an upcoming Writers' Houses post, but I thought we should hang out with some better quotes that are actually real.

1. There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice. - Following the Equator

2. I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts. I don't know anything that mars good literature so completely as too much truth. Facts contain a great deal of poetry, but you can't use too many of them without damaging your literature. I love all literature, and as long as I am a doctor of literature--I have suggested to you for twenty years I have been diligently trying to improve my own literature, and now, by virtue of the University of Oxford, I mean to doctor everybody else's. - Speech to the Savage Club, London, 7/6/1907

3.  Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about. - More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

4. Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved. - Pudd'nhead Wilson

5. Wit and Humor--if any difference it is in duration--lightning and electric light. Same material, apparently; but one is vivid, brief, and can do damage--the other fools along and enjoys the elaboration. - Mark Twain's Notebook

6. I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--the confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't. - "Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

7. Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered--either by themselves or by others.Autobiography of Mark Twain

8. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

9. Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person. - Notebook, 1898

10. Never refuse to do a kindness unless the act would work great injury to yourself, and never refuse to take a drink- under any circumstances.Mark Twain's Notebook

Writers' Houses

I'm pleased to announce that I am guest blogging over at Writers' Houses, a website that has been recognized by the New Yorker, The LA Times, and, most importantly, the dork community.  Check it out when you have a chance-- it's a behind-the-scenes look at my job at the Twain House. Fun to live, fun to write. Writers' Houses!

The Artful Interview

I've been interviewing my fellow improvisers for our Sea Tea Improv podcast (not yet launched-- I'll keep you posted!), and today, I attempted to record a short introduction to those interviews. Let me tell you, talking to yourself, even for three minutes, is not easy. There's no eye contact. There's no give and take. The only voice besides your voice is the voice in your head.  Here's me talking to myself in the podcast: Me: Welcome to the Sea Tea Improv Podcast! I'm Julia Pistell and I'm, uh, going to...

Voice in head: You sound so unnatural. You sound like you're reading the sponsors at the end of something.

Me:... (pause)


Me: tell you all about the short history of Sea Tea!

Voice: Too peppy. Tone it down, stupid.

.... And on and on.

I've never thought too much about interviewing until lately; I've always loved to talk and ask questions. I'm curious about people and I also don't have an excessive amount of dignity, so that makes for some pretty direct questioning.

But now I have t0 learn how to do it right-- I'll be interviewing the amazing Fran Gordon for my work at The Mark Twain House about the early days of the House's restoration, and I'd love for these Podcasts to be high-quality, too. In my panic I decided to get away from the podcasts and hang out and read today.

So of course I'm reading Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Neil Strauss, a collection of unused interview scraps from Rolling Stone. This book is incredibly well-edited-- the reader gets between a paragraph and a few pages of each interview, then Strauss swerves to someone else whose interview is thematically linked, and then possibly back to someone you'd already met before. He's an artist of the interview, it seems. His primary skill seems to be asking direct questions, and because of that, he gets some unexpected results (sometimes very self-aware, sometimes hilariously unaware) from people.


Strauss: I notice a lot of times you seem to be zoning out.

Aguilera: I'm never zoning out. I told you I was a deep thinker. My mind is always thinking...My life just revolves around putting myself out there for people, and giving and giving. So whenever I get those five minutes in a van or limo or whatever, those are special moments to just zone out and think and dream. I just love being about to do that. It's funny that you notice that.

Another fantastic interview-based book is The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch (thanks for the recommendation, Tom Bissell!). This is an entire book of one conversation about film editing and, consequently, book editing. Example:

M: And as I was removing that scene, at two in the morning, it began to speak to me, as if it were Job, saying: Why are you removing me, me of all scenes who has been so faithful to you, who has tried so hard to accomodate your every wish? And I said, I know what you're talking about, and believe me, I've spent many hundreds of hours on you and yet I'm willing to throw all that work away for the benefit of the whole.

O: It's so similar to editing a book, in those final stages of trying to find the right balance.. It's like pruning trees and you take out numbers 3 and 7 and 9, and once they're gone you realize that--

M: You see a whole different thing.

O: You can see a different possible form and you discover that a whole new set of trees can go, or should at least be moved to a new place.

So, my challenge to myself is to become a good interviewer. A great interviewer. If I'm going to write nonfiction, this is an essential skill. It's not about just taking down what people say. It's about asking the right questions and following up with an even better one.

What do you think, readers? What makes a great interview?

Three Journals

Oct. 22, 1837 "What are you doing now?" he asked. "Do you keep a journal?" So I make my first entry to-day.

-- Henry David Thoreau (first entry)

June 1897

"I am a realist bothered by reality."

-- Jules Renard

"If you'd told me last Monday that my weekend would end eating the best rhubarb pie ever at an off-season ski lodge on top of a mountain in Arizona, discussing a paranoid schizophrenic's comments on Chernoble during the chanting at a Buddhist funeral, I'd say: glad life is so surprising."

-- My facebook page, August 30, 2010


This morning I woke up and read other people's journals. The New York Review of Books has recently abridged and published Thoreau's day-to-day record of nature's minutiae; I also have with me The Journal of Jules Renard, a French fin-de-siecle diary of the inner life of one now-forgotten writer. Both journals can be read almost like reference tomes; open to a single page and find something out of context that somehow provides context for the moment you are in right now. Here, I'll do it. (No cheating, I promise):

"I find some advantage in describing the experience of a day on the day following. At this distance it is more ideal, like the landscape seen with the head inverted, or reflections in water." -- Thoreau, April 20th 1854

I used to shelve books in the reference section of the library at Skidmore College, and I took a rich pleasure in opening the works at random and learning something strange. One book was a taxonomy of sea creatures, one the DSM-IV full of psychiatric diagnoses. Sometimes I would steal a second to discover the population of Guatemala. Reading other people's diaries replicates that experience. When you shut the book, or turn the page, most of the time the information vanishes right out of your head, but you had a glimpse of something true. These things feel beautiful to me when I see them isolated on the page and they feel beautiful when, mid-conversation, I try to chase them down in my memory. What was that thing I read somewhere?

Journals, as a habit, have morphed so completely that we do not recognize them. I'm of the opinion that we are seeing a resurgence of journals, diaries, and note-passing in the form of facebook and twitter. And yet we largely hate these things, see them as dumb and a waste of time (even those of us who are engaged with them every day). I have heard people say so many times, "I don't care about every little thought you have." Well, I do. I love John Smith's diaries, and Thoreau's, and Anne Frank's, and slave narratives, and Mark Twain's letters. I love my facebook page, which I just clicked back through as far as it would let me go (June 3, 2010-- "I just got recognized in CVS!").

What we are not seeing right now is that we're living in the middle of the greatest documentation of daily life in history. The problem is, we don't think of it that way, and our digital journals smack of carelessness. I want to say to everyone: observe better. Reflect better. Conclude better. Write better.

But of course that isn't fair, or in any way effective. Because what Thoreau's random April quote reminds me  is that our digital journals are too immediate for us to really reflect on them. When I was a serious diary-writer (I went through a few very intense spurts in childhood and then a blowout recording of about 1,000 handwritten pages from age 17-18) I just about always leafed through the previous pages. I thought about what I'd promised myself before, what I had seen that I had forgotten. I heard my voice speaking seriously about a past I knew had become this present. When I wrote again, I had a larger sense of self and world in mind. I was in conversation with my sense of self. I do not do that any longer. I wish I could see my first few facebook statuses, see myself learning to use the technology, see myself choosing the online voice that now feels so ingrained. I wish I could see it all at once and edit it down to a story of myself, as paper diaries have been in the past.

I have an urge to conclude, but, this digital slice is also just one tiny entry in a reference book. So I will not. I will open up Jules Renard, at random:

"I am not content with intermittent life. I must have life at each instant."

I said hey! What's going on?

Dear readers, I hope you've been enjoying my periodic whimsical rants about whales, radio, books, and the like. I think it's about time for a real update on what's going on, don't you?

1) Sea Tea Improv continues to grow at a breakneck pace. We just did a great show at ESPN's campus, our 2nd birthday is today, we're on the lookout for new places both to perform and to teach. All very good! If you're at all interested in improv, comedy, theater, Hartford, or small businesses, I encourage you to keep up with us. I never thought I'd be a part of something so grassroots and satisfying. Oh, and I completed the 3rd level (of 4) of education at the Upright Citizens Brigade. So much fun.

1a) I've started recording a Sea Tea podcast. 5 episodes recorded but not posted yet-- stay tuned for that. I'm trying to learn how to edit audio and interview people well and then when I have a decent product ready I'll post a few to get started.

2) The Mark Twain House & Museum is, as always, a daily dose of random. I'm coordinating a Tom Sawyer Pirate Day, a Victorian Tea Party, events related to a Steampunk Exhibit, an Oktoberfest, a traveling Mark Twain Game Show, the silliest twitter feed, a booth at the CT Book festival... I could go on forever.  Someday I will write about this.

2a) I'm also about to start another radio project relating to the history of the Twain House as a historic property. It will involve inspirational women. I'm thrilled to pieces, especially to be working with Catie Talarski, quite an inspirational lady herself.

3) I picked up another little job teaching a combination of theater and Twain History to a gaggle of kids at the Hartford Children's Theatre. Kids! It's been a while. Can't wait.

3a) Speaking of theater, I'm in a top secret puppetteering production for Real Art Ways' Odd Ball (out of towners: that's an indie cinema & art house in Hartford).

4) I'm still writing and submitting things here and there, but it's slow going because of all my other commitments and projects. The Writers Fellowship I won last year is almost up and I've used much of the time to research an essay on Ghanaian Fantasy caskets, brainstorm a new piece about technology and my relatives, and write short pieces intended for radio. The writer's life is a slog sometimes and I wish I could create more time out of thin air.

4a) I was in Washington for the AWP conference and won a little short fiction contest via the Coachella Review. That was fun! For more writing news poke around this whole site.

5) I'm trying to shave an hour off my half marathon time. Ha ha ha. Really.

5a) I'm also trying to get back down to fighting weight so I can go on some  scuba and rock-climbing weekends with my wonderful and athletic siblings.

6) I'm about to launch a reading series at La Paloma Sabanera (a local coffeehouse) because, frankly, there should be one, and if I've learned one thing about Hartford it's that you should just do it yourself and stop complaining. Right? I'm VERY excited about this project.

6a) My reading life has been spotty lately. I need someone to recommend a great book I will tear through in a week or less.

7) Finally, this blog is going to get a revamp. I've played around, I've posted here and there-- it's time to knock this sucker up to twice a week and get some actual subscribers. Therefore: please subscribe, tell me what you like and don't like, and come along for the rest of my year of new projects.

Moby Dick

I can't stop thinking about Moby Dick. I read Melville's novel on a beach in China in 2005, loved it, and now feel an almost magnetic pull towards re-reading. Perhaps it's because I listened to this Peabody Award-Winning Podcast on all things Moby-Dick-related, or perhaps it's because I've been reading Philip Hoare's The Whale-- a truly great work of nonfiction that goes over much of the same territory as Moby Dick, and includes great commentary on the book. If you're into whales but afraid of Melville it's a good place to start.

Or maybe I can't stop thinking about Moby Dick because he is the greatest symbol in American literature. At least one of the greatest. Any better ones you can think of? (I mean that genuinely, I'm curious.) Anything better than a huge, white, simultaneously evil and innocent animal, something ancient and yet a source of energy and modernization, one of the largest creatures to have ever been on the planet and yet impossible to find? I love that guy.

A month or so ago I was sitting in my cubicle and, horrified that no one in my workplace had read or loved Moby Dick, I read only the first paragraph aloud to everyone. I threatened to read a paragraph a day until we all appreciated it but I don't think anyone liked that idea.  I reproduce the first paragraph here for your enjoyment. (I used to have this memorized.) May it not be a damp drizzly November in your soul today.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.


Recently I was cleaning out my supply closet (there have been a lot of snow days) and found an undeveloped disposable camera. This discovery was particularly mysterious because I can't actually remember the last time I used one of those things. I normally have intense, long-term monogamous relationships with fancy cameras, playing with lens and light and composition as my mother and grandfather taught me to do. The only period of my life where I used disposables with any regularity was in high school to take hundreds of upon hundreds of photographs of my friends and I goofing around making cupcakes, or taking our first train to New York, or headed to the shore on senior cut day. In my mind, disposables are associated with both recklessness and babysitting money, which I would lay out on the CVS counter while picking up my prints (with doubles, of course, to dole out to whatever friend I'd slung my arm around while holding the camera in front of us). Disposables also, almost always, took on a distinct sense of mystery as you worked your way down through the roll. Anyone who has carried a disposable camera around in their bag must remember looking down at those tiny, descending numbers thinking what in god's name is on the beginning of this roll? or, at a wedding, who grabbed this off the table before me? At weddings I always liked picking up the cameras and taking pictures of people I didn't even know, thereby injecting a little extra mystery into the proceedings (who took this? the couple would say to each other as they went through the endless shots of centerpieces and bad dancing).  In short, the disposable camera was antithetical to the general advancement of technology-- less instant than Polaroids, lower quality than pretty much any other camera on the market, and not valuable in any way outside of its brief life recording things not important enough for a real camera.

So, as you can imagine, I was quite curious to see what was on this camera. I was fairly certain I'd taken it home from a wedding. For this reason, I dawdled on getting it developed-- because last year I knew a few couples who'd gotten divorced. The pictures might have been a portal to happier times.  If that was true, then it would be a new moment, a new memory, to reconsider, a brand new expression of love that would be immediately shattered. No thank you.

But lately I have been on a mission to accomplish everything within my home-- to finish everything unfinished, to confront everything I have delayed. I have been dashing through half-finished books and repairing broken jewelry; I have recycled receipts and hung pictures; I have returned letters and put things up for auction on ebay. The camera had to be developed if my project was to be complete.

I took it down to the local camera shop a block away (how did it take me three years to find the best local business in Hartford?) and one day later, at the end of a very bad day, I had this:

Greg and I went on a camping trip in 2004-- yes, seven years ago-- and apparently, due to what I can only guess was a practical protection of our real cameras-- brought a disposable. You, dear reader, do not have to be polite. The pictures are absolutely awful.  And I love them. Here's why.

Everything has changed since we took these pictures. They are dingy, the light is awful. We only took one picture of each thing, and half of them are of nondescript bodies of water or bushes or views. We took a few photos of each other, looking tired and drenched (it rained the entire time), and not a single photo together. Clearly we pulled out the camera randomly. It appears there is no more than a photo or two per day. Clearly I forgot about the pictures altogether. It also looks like Greg took the camera home and finished off the last six pictures at various intervals over the course of several months, based on the scenes and the tans of his subjects. Almost every single picture has the stunning lighting and compositional elements of this one:

I love these pictures because I've forgotten that pictures didn't always look like an advertisement for my own life. They used to look like my actual memories, sloppy and weird and halfway done. I also love that one of us carried it around for the past seven years as the two of us traveled around the world separately, meaning to get it developed.

And with this disposable I have remembered the ecstasy of delay. Had I developed these right away, I probably would have thrown half of them out. Had I taken these photos with a digital camera, I more than likely would have deleted most of them within twenty seconds of taking them. I would have tossed out the imperfections of my own life.

I should say here that this camping trip is, was, will always be one of the highlights of my partnership with Greg. We were drenched and scared of woodsy noises. We were exhausted the entire time. I vacillated between complaint and bullying. Greg got a tick that I had to pull out. I couldn't sleep because the inside of the tent got wet, including my sleeping bag, pajamas, and shoes. And we both found all of this hilarious. I couldn't be happier that these pictures are as random as that trip, and have reminded me, in both form and content, of that ordinary little vacation just as we were falling in love.

I hope the rest of my home yields such funny mysteries.

My books

Earlier this week my closest friend from high school put this on my facebook wall, and I felt relieved as soon as I read it. I have, these past few years, found it oddly impossible to articulate the importance of physical books in my life. Their impact is far, far more than simply the impact of a story or a set of facts on the human mind. Frenemy's post jogged many memories of my life with the paper book. I don't like to be more than an arm's reach from one; they are talismanic to me, magical, life saving. To imagine my life without physical books is an impossibility. I would be  a completely different person. I don't think I love anything in the world as much as a great book, except possibly a great swim. Go back and forth between the two and you have a perfect day. I do not read while I am waiting to do other things. I do other things while I am waiting to read.

As a child I used to lie on my parents' bed to read picture books with my father; as he'd fall asleep the pages we'd already read together would flutter haphazardly in the wrong direction, and I didn't have to turn to his face to know he had fallen asleep.  My mother used to take us to bookstores and libraries on any free afternoon (actually, she still does, even though we are all in our twenties) and I specifically remember the moment I moved from looking at Sweet Valley Twins covers to Sweet Valley High covers. I knew, even then, that those books were trashy, but they signified something about adulthood to me, with their sheer thickness and pink and purple spines running down the shelves to an infinite point in the distance.  I read so many of those books, largely on the floor of bookstores themselves. And in libraries I found subjects I didn't know existed, or allowed myself to drift back to the books I had loved as a child, or see with a jolt that someone else I knew in our small town had checked this book out before or-- even better-- that I was the first one to take this one home in ten years.  I had a teacher who required us to write papers on ten different French impressionists, and going through those Matisse and Seurat prints all spread out in a library was one of the great intellectual thrills of my life, to be replicated in college with French revolution political cartoons and original editions of The Yellow Book. I worked at that college library, checking in brand-new books and wedging them Dewey-decimal in with books that had been at Skidmore for many decades. To shelve a book was to immediately place it in a historical context.

I love stories, yes- I love movies and improvisation and a good old tall tale told at a dinner table. But I love books more. For most books that I've read since I was a teenager (and that's a lot, trust me) I could tell you where I read some or all of that book. With that kind of tactile memory, I can place these books within the context of myself. It is important to me that I read Anna Karenina on the beach in Wells, Maine, sitting in a chair because it was just too exciting to read belly-down on a towel.  Or that I turned the last page of the huge The Executioner's Song sobbing, in my first apartment in Hartford as my boyfriend walked in the door. I have thrown scary books across the room in terror, I have passed many paperbacks back and forth with friends who have all signed the inside covers. Every Christmas, my family has more book-sized shapes piled up than any other kind of present by far. I learned how to nurture kids when I was a teenaged babysitter by reading to them in bed. I read the same four books over and over in Ghana because that was all I could carry. I read them on buses, in cities, by a lantern in a village with no electricity. In China I read anything I could find in English just for the pure sweet understanding, and I would hold those books in my hands and think Thank God. And speaking of God- I turned thin pages of Bibles and hymnals with more reverence for the beautiful binding and paper than the text itself.  I used to read many books about books- The Neverending Story and Farenheit 451 and Fun Home-- and in all of them books have a transformative power that nothing else in the world does. They are more than story. They are to be interacted with, to be saved from burning, to be discovered. The book I am reading now I found randomly on a shelf in New York last Sunday, and I love its font, its thickness, the person who sold it to me, the way I have read it at lunch tables, and the people who have commented when they have seen it in my hands.

These things are meaningful. Books are not just books; they are art; they are artifact. My shelves tell me what I have tried to know and what I have promised myself to know someday. They have weight and they take up space, but that is what they are supposed to do. They are not just a transfer of one human mind to another. They are a physical part of the world, and I will never forget that. Before they are in my memory they are in my hands.

Whose story is my story?

Yesterday I posted a short article I wrote for the Star-Ledger about the differences between Twain biographies.  Today, at work at the Twain house, I was given a little article in a Norwich paper to refute.  (The article states that Hartford was irrelevant to Twain's writing.  Very easy to refute, in my opinion.)  Doing my preliminary research for my rebuttal, I had a conversation I've had several times: "Now if you've got to read one biography, read the Kaplan.  This is the one.  Unless of course you want the early years.  Then it's not the one."

"Oh, yes, I've got to get to that new one.  Dammit.  So much to read."

Here are the Twain biographies I feel like I should read before I can consider myself an expert-- wait, forget expert-- before I can consider myself the most basic of Twain scholars.  Kaplan's, Powers', Fishkin's, this new one about the early years that I can't remember the name of, Twain's own Autobiography (of which there are several versions, and certain parts aren't really true), and his nonfiction The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi.  Most of these books I've read parts of to find out what Twain thought about music or New Jersey or ghosts.  Keep in mind, I just reviewed Loving, Shelden, & Trombley's biographies.  And the letters.  Oh, my, the letters.  There are approximately 5,000 and I have learned that they can be used to prove anything.

What I'm wondering is how much we read about a person before we can really know them, or at least speak for them.  You have to imagine the people of the future sifting through blogs and facebook posts and writing contrasting books (and facebook posts) about what they may have wanted or believed.  Or maybe none of that matters; maybe all you need to know about Twain is contained within Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  And how many biographies before we feel we've really made a decision as to who he was?

That last thought, though, is silly.  We have already decided who and what he is to the culture: important and hilarious.  The rest is possibly just an excuse to spend more time with and understand a man who is collectively admired worldwide.  You have to hope that when you, dear reader,  write your memoirs, letters, emails, and what have you, that future generations will see that that isn't the complete version of yourself.  That you are worth uncovering again and again.  That any human life is so complex as to be studied for centuries, and the more details that are available, the more fuel there is to draw new conclusions.  That there is no final word on you.