My first inclination is, I love you
When Wendy C. Ortiz contacted me a few years ago to ask if we might trade books, I messaged her back with a picture of me holding Excavation and Hollywood Notebook. (At the time she’d yet to release Bruja.) I been fangirling her for some time. My copy of Excavation resembles an abused text for an English class: there are highlights and margin notes. Around that time, I wrote to her that I felt like I could tell her anything, a potentially burdensome thing to hear from someone because of the risk that they may run with the assumption, and start spilling their guts. I didn’t (then) but the feeling was real. I spent most of 2018 removed from social networks. When I’d log into my website, it was to post photos of dreamy dead actors like Basil Rathbone and Leslie Howard— but every other month, Wendy and I wrote to each other, and her missives kept me engaged. Kept me participating. For me, what transpired was more than just a year long exchange with a writer I greatly admire. Her communications were the best kind of tether.
--Fiona Helmsley, December 2018
Ever since Fiona Helmsley and I have been in touch I’ve considered her part of a small constellation of writers I admire. It’s partly a generational thing: in Fiona’s essays, I’ve seen versions of myself or my friends in the late 1980s and early 1990s—how as adolescents and young adults we made meaning, how we coped, how we crashed, burned, but ultimately survived. Fiona’s subject matter and concerns have always spoken to me and made me feel as though our books are in conversation, as though these things we made are cross-country cousins with a deep affinity for one another. Or maybe this is just how I feel about Fiona. Conscious of the fact that Fiona’s presence on social media can be ephemeral, and also because I wanted more than our books to be in conversation, I approached her to join me in this year-long correspondence, and I’m so pleased she did.
--Wendy C. Ortiz, December 2018
(January 1, 2018)
WCO: I began a similar interview last year with this question: What is your relationship to regret? I’m always interested in people’s sense of ‘regret’ and yet I wonder, is this a question I’d like to open yet another interview with? What does that question reveal about me?
So let me begin again, with an altogether different question. Today, or whenever you answer this question this month: What are you reaching toward? Does reaching toward always mean moving away from?
Hi, Fiona. Thank you for participating in this interview.
FH: My reaching ties in to my regret. My regret informs my reaching! The same things that cut me off in “civilian” life also cut me off when it comes to my writing: I didn’t go to college.
I guess I always believed that if I was demonstrably smart enough, and wily enough, and crafty enough, others would give me a chance, if I could show that I could do the work, but um, no, you definitely have to pay thousands of dollars to prove yourself qualified first. This misguided belief has become the great burn of my life. That’s how regret informs my reaching at work. I’m probably stalled in my current position forever without a Masters Degree.
With my writing, it’s more that I’m aware of a snobbery. It’s like, I get you (generalized you, MFA peanut-crunching crowd, you) sat for classes for 6 years, and racked up substantial debt to do it, but don’t let the legacy of that include upholding some insular caste system. I guess what I’m reaching towards is a bending: getting two worlds that I participate in, but sometimes feel ostracized from, to give me a chance.
Does that reaching require I move away from something? Probably politesse. I can’t afford college!
(I have a hard time writing the stories I write, which often deal with themes of shame and humiliation, then not talking about the shame and humiliation I have sometimes felt trying to get those stories published.)
I wanted to write to you about blurbs. You wrote one for Girls Gone Old and I’m writing one now. (It’s only like the third I’ve written.) I have definitely inspected a book because an author I liked agreed to put their name on the cover, like a vouch. Blurbs are writers shilling for each other. Lending some cred, the thought being, they have some cred to lend. They are also about the benefits of association.
(I have a hard time writing the stories that I write, then turning around, and abiding a system that requires blurbs.)
I asked three writers to blurb GGO. All writers I had contact with to varying degrees in the past. You, and two other writers I admired. Of the other two, one had edited and published a few of my stories for different websites, and the second was a writer who I asked to blurb my first book, but didn’t respond in time. When she did get back to me, she expressed regret having missed it. I messaged everyone over Facebook. You responded right away. The other two didn’t respond at all. The worst was I could see that both had read my message. With the writer who had edited and published my stories, it felt weird not to get any response. I understand being busy, and I understand I was being an annoying person asking for something, but it’s strange, sometimes, being a writer. You give away a lot, are expected to give away a lot— and don’t even rate a “Sorry, can’t, crossed the blurb quota for the month.” And then Facebook makes it worse because you read these people post like they're the saviors of the outsider voices of the literary community.
While I’ve had my writing published, I’ve sometimes felt that there are writers who are hesitant to be associated with me. They’ll publish my essays, or tell me in private messages that they like my writing, but are hesitant to make that endorsement in public. I wanted to tell you that I’ve never felt that you feel that way about me, and it means a lot.
I would ask that your response be whatever you can to relate to in what I wrote, or what it made you think or feel (if it made you think or feel anything). Otherwise my question would be: have you ever been made to feel that you were less than, or were in some way tainted, by other writers?
WCO: Ugh, I’m sorry that the publishing world is what it is, and that people act in dismissive ways and the cycle of attention is so manufactured. Really. Though I’m of the “MFA peanut-crunching crowd” I often feel outside of it, because 1) I graduated in 2002 from a program that now doesn’t resemble the one I attended and 2) it was so goddamn long ago that it feels like it doesn’t have the same cred as someone who got one recently (I am most certainly not a part of the conversations about MFAs, either--probably because I leave myself out of them, or when asked point blank, I tell people only to consider an MFA if the program is fully funded AND they have some money set aside AND ideally another career).
What you describe--the feeling that there are writers hesitant to be associated with you--is something I sometimes relate to (there’s a flip side and that one is gross, too). I feel it in these ways: when writers are heavily invested in academia, I am sometimes hesitantly part of the conversation or just not (which I’m fine with--I am getting more and more used to saying to people, I am not an academic). There have been moments in the recent past when I got the sense that other writers might be holding back their praise or ire about/toward me, which results in an interesting silence. I also acknowledge I could be making all of this up. I don’t have actual evidence--it’s more a feeling.
(The flip side is when other writers suddenly “discover” me and want to endorse me or be engaged with me publicly any which way, which results in me drawing stronger boundaries.)
So, yeah, I have felt like I was made to feel “less than” than other writers, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I think of this in terms of the radars I’m on/not on. There are some radars I seem to never be able to hit for a variety of (usually capitalist) reasons. There are some radars that I am consistently and inexplicably invisible to (fuck those radars). There are a few who spot me intermittently, when it suits them. There are radars that see me, all of me, most of the time, and I’m grateful when it’s even some of the time.
I have also felt “tainted” by other writers, yes. But again, I don’t have evidence, just a feeling.
I’m struck by the line you wrote about shame and humiliation being a part of your work and then how shame and humiliation show up when it comes time to get the work published. There’s a manuscript I felt urgent about (it’s hybrid and unappealing to traditional publishers, and my agent) and it was rejected by a number of places, some of whom “know me” and are friendly with me on some level on social media--and from them I received form rejections as well. I can’t say I felt shame about it, but I did feel slightly stung that their friendliness only went so far as the public could see. In a way it felt like a private humiliation. And yet I can’t linger on it too long because...I just can’t. I know I “dealt” with it in a private passive/aggressive way, probably (ha!). At this point I think my calluses are sufficiently thickened and I don’t have time or energy to look back too long at any grievance (except in moments in my backyard when I’m smoking and ranting about the long list of grievances I keep, teehee).
What are some ways you’ve “reached” and were met, accepted in ways that you wanted? (One might assume the publishers you’ve worked with, I guess, because they committed at that level--but I’m curious about this question with regard to not just publishing.)
FH: Well, self-regard is great. When I write something, and feel that I’ve written it well, that’s a great feeling. I crave that feeling. It’s the number one reason I keep writing despite the challenges. When I read something that I’ve written, and feel that I’ve done the experience justice, and found the right words, I get a strong blast of pleasure. There’s a private high to writing that no one can take away from me.
This is a bit depressing. I’m having a hard time coming up with moments where I reached and was met! All of my moments are a bit askew. My reaching has applied to off-kilter situations. Wanted to be a sex worker. Reached and was met. Wanted to travel cross country with no money and without showering, reached and was met. Having my writing published would probably be the most relatable, outside of becoming a parent.
Which isn’t to say I wanted to be a parent. My son’s father convinced me it was something we could do, then promptly fell apart once our child was born. Then eight years later, he died. Being a single parent has involved a lot of reaching, but it has also involved some retreating.
I’d been in treatment at a halfway house when I met my son’s father, and when you’re in treatment, your kind of hiding out from the world, trying to figure out life without drugs, and then suddenly I was pregnant, and then suddenly I had a child, so I never really figured out how to be clean in the world, day to day. As a parenting strategy, because I didn’t trust myself, I hid out. I never thought I’d be in my 40s, still living in the place I went to hide. But living here has never been “hiding out” to my son. It’s his home. He loves it here.
I work for the town now, but I always felt removed from the community. In my more dramatic moments, I would have said I felt shunned by the community. It went back to when I was teenager, growing up here. I was really flagrant about my interests, and they were a winning trifecta: drugs, petty crime, Charles Manson— so in a sense, I really sought out my own shunning, and it worked. I was a shunning success! I provoked people to react to me, and they did. When I came back here to raise my son, I still carried that outsider mentality. There was a bit of ego to it in retrospect, this assumption that all these local people still remembered, and still judged me for of all of my drama in the 1990s. (My mother used to say that if she knew I was going to get into so much trouble as a teenager, she would have never named me Fiona. She would have named me something much more anonymous, and forgettable, like Jane.) But as of late it’s occurred to me that through my work at the library, I’ve gotten to know so many people, and they really value what I do there. We have patrons who come in everyday, and a part of their regular library experience, something they value, and look forward to, is their interactions with me. It’s strange to realize that you are valued in a way that you never expected, by people who you always felt removed from, and that if you were to suddenly drop dead, this really diverse group of people would most likely come to your service, and tell your family stories about how you enriched their lives.
So, in a sense, I’m like a small town Satanist who made good. An underpaid, prodigal small-town Satanist.
I’d like to ask you about your fears—fears that you are actively trying to overcome, but aren’t quite there yet. Fears that you are still struggling with, in spite of your efforts. For me, it would be driving a car. Having my license would make such a monumental difference in my life, would open so many doors, but in spite of my aspirations, I’m not there yet. I keep trying, but for me, the unnaturalness of the act makes driving extremely difficult. I’m constantly aware that I’m in a killing machine surrounded by other killing machines, and this awareness makes it extremely hard for me to relax behind the wheel.
WCO: Reaching and retreating sound similar to flowing and ebbing to me...
I love that you work in the library! I’m a former library worker (public library volunteer, circulation department of a college library, manager of a library’s information commons) and my love and respect for libraries and the people who work in them is immense and never ends. One of my favorite things about Twitter is following librarians and then lurking as they tweet stuff to each other during conferences. Nerd alert!
Is it strange to say that the way you described your life in the previous paragraphs sounds like it would make for a great film? (or perhaps you’ve thought this before?)
Oh, fears. Fears! Okay, so I get your fear, rationally. You’re correct in that it’s unnatural to be in a can of steel hurtling down roadways assuming that everyone else on the road is just as sober, interested in living, and interested in getting where they want to be, as you are. It’s wild! We need to fear cars more than airplanes! But somehow we rationalize cars being safer to ourselves because many of us deal with them everyday. It’s like a collective hallucination that everything is fine!
Still: I like having control over this machine. I’ve always enjoyed driving and/but I also started at 15 in L.A. and that has made me a lot less fearful and more of a defensive driver.
But you wanted to know about my fears! A fear I am currently trying to overcome: surfing, and sometimes just swimming in the ocean. I’ve spent so much time in the ocean but I notice as I get older I fear a lot of things I used to run full force toward (drugs, ocean, other unpredictable but potentially fun things). I got surfing lessons a couple of years ago and managed to get on the board and ride a few small waves but during the lesson I had no time to be afraid, I had to just paddle out and get up and get on the board and then keep doing that. My instructor did not check in with me. He did not ask if I was scared and how my anxiety was doing. And so I just did it. But every time since, when I’m standing out in the ocean, I feel fear about going deeper, I second-guess my ability to call the waves as they’re coming, and I generally feel super tiny and very very mortal.
Where are you at these days with driving? I have some time this summer when I plan to be in the Atlantic Ocean (which I’ve not been fearful of, so calm and warm where I go anyway!) and I do plan to go to the beach here this summer, and I will bring the boogie board out because it’s a step down from a surfboard, to just get a feel for waves again. (On a semi-related note: 1) I originally wanted the tattoo on my right arm to be of an anatomical heart engorged with tidal waves, then when my tattooer drew it, I convinced myself that it would portend my death by drowning so I got a non-anatomical heart with ocean waves inside it instead; 2) my partner wanted to name our kid Ophelia, and I could not, because I imagined it would instantly mean that she would die of drowning later in her life.)
I’m thinking of what you wrote earlier, about parenting strategies, which I feel like I pick up along the way and can never quite “catch up” with, but is that even possible? I’m thinking, too, of a hypothetical AWP panel I joked about with Chelsea Hodson about “motherhood.” She thought it was funny that I tend to avoid most narratives about “motherhood” and parenting, and that I do not need or want to read another birth story. I rarely meet other mothers who hold this position, so we imagined gathering a few (we exist!) to, I guess, shit-talk what we hate most about the most common contemporary narratives about motherhood or parenting. Or, rather, “interrogate” those narratives. Lol. What are your thoughts on writing the parenting experience, or “‘motherhood”?
FH: I’ve done it in dribs and drabs. It might be interesting, or perhaps it’s just vanity that leads me to think it might be interesting, but in my writing I haven’t done that much direct interrogation of my family unit. I guess that means for me some things are in fact, sacred. It definitely ties in with my son’s age. He’ll be thirteen in August. While I’ve done some writing about his father, I did the bulk of that writing when my son was younger, and not interested in what I doing in my bedroom with the door closed, letting his dinner burn in the oven. He’s more interested now.
When my last book came out, he saw me giving interviews on the phone and over Skype. (To be honest, it may have been my “No interruptions til I get off the phone, I’m giving an interview!” that brought it to his attention.) I think it was seeing people reach out to me about the book that said to him I might be doing something worthy of his investigation. I don’t know how far he’s taken that investigation.
Recently, I had a production company contact me about the availability of the rights to Girls Gone Old. Though I’m pessimistic about their interest going any farther than emails, the interest alone made my stock as a writer go up three fold in his eyes. I liked the way he processed it. He saw their interest in terms of money, but more specifically money for his college. He wasn’t being an ass kisser. Doing well in school is very important to him, the exact opposite of where it fit into my hierarchy of important things when I was his age. More than anything, I hope that hierarchy remains in tact over the next few years.
If my son were to read my writing, he’d find out so many things we’ve yet to talk to about it. So many things I know he’s aware of happening in the world to other people, but not necessarily to his mother. I don’t know his opinions on these things in depth, though I do hear his thoughts on them when they come up at school, or in the media. He’s aware of #MeToo but not (I don’t think) that his mother has written about her experiences with sexual assault and harassment. He will make comments about drugs and addiction, but I don’t think he is fully aware of my addiction history, or his father’s or that it was my pregnancy with him that got me clean. Eventually we will have these conversations. We just haven’t had them yet. I don’t have many filters when it comes to shame in my writing, but with my son, these conversations will have to be tempered. He’s not my “audience.” He’s my child, and this is the legacy he’s inherited and will have to learn to navigate. Trying to make the experiences funny, or thinking that my willingness to be candid will lessen whatever shame/blame he feels may not be the best way to shape the conversation. I can’t talk to him the same way I write.
For months I’ve been working on a long piece about Casey Anthony. At first I thought it would be an essay but it’s morphed into something more. It’s about mothering. Mostly about my relationship with my own mother, someone who set the mothering bar very, very high.
My mother is a Baby Boomer whose greatest aspiration was to be a mother, to give her love selflessly and unceasingly to the raising and protecting of her children, and other people’s children too, on a loaner basis. Though my mother would consider herself a feminist, and I would too, I wouldn’t say she was necessarily feminist in her mothering, but it was her decision. It was what she wanted to do. It’s what she still wants to do.
When my mother retired from her job a few years ago she wanted to volunteer at hospitals holding premature babies at the NIC unit—only to find out that this strain of volunteerism went out of vogue in the 1980s (possibly after a score of kidnappings). While I’ve benefited in so many ways (and exploited throughout the years) my mom’s selfless form of mothering, I do not emulate it. Since we are lucky enough to still have her in our lives, I recognize that my son goes to her for this: the drop everything and love you kind of mothering my mom offers, which I don’t. I understand my son needing it and wanting it. I needed it. I wanted it. But I am not that selfless. Sometimes I cannot drop everything and just love my child. Can my child come first if I don’t always put him first? Can he still come first if physically I’m in my room (writing) with the door closed? At least it’s not for men I tell myself. My selfishness has character, I tell myself. My selfishness is rooted in creativity and the desire to express myself. At least it’s not another human I’m choosing over him, I tell myself. The hours I spend in my room may help us someday. Like the interest (no matter how far-fetched) from the production company.
The Casey Anthony essay may be a book. And while I’m still working on it, I can postpone having the conversation with my son. I’m not afraid of having it, but I can see that my son still romanticizes his parents—especially the idea of what he imagines our relationship was. His father and I were never married, and though I’ve told him this before, he still says that we were, so it’s obviously important to him. If, what to me is such a small distinction —married vs. not married—is that important, the bigger truth may be quite painful for him.
Does Chelsea have a child? I met her once for five minutes. She interviewed my friend (and GGO publisher) Jarett Kobek at a bookstore in Brooklyn.
I don’t know. Communications today are all reversed, and backwards. We do so much of it over a screen. Add to that the non-fiction writing angle, and it gets even more convoluted. It’s you, the other person, and then both of you as the other’s audience. And because writing is our art form, and over a screen, we both have the time/distance, usually, it’s both of us edited. No matter how sincere, it’s inherent. There will always be a part that’s performance.
We are at the midway point of the year. I sometimes feel like this moment is actually me in the future looking back at this moment, because often it is. Time folds in on itself.
With the driving, I am getting better. It’s like exposure therapy. I have a learner’s permit that expires in October, so I’m really going to try to get it done this time so I don’t have to go through the process and expense of getting the permit again.
I want to recommend a book to you. It’s a graphic novel that I just happened to pick up by chance in the new book YA section at the library. It’s called Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein. It’s based on Mary Shelley’s journals which I now have to try to find in their entirety. I don’t read many graphic novels, but it’s such a beautiful book.
On Facebook, I saw your post about your book proposal. How is that going?
WCO: I can so appreciate what you’re saying about the flow of information about your life as it shows in your work and how you share or don’t share the details with your son. It’s funny, my seven-year-old also has this (bizarre, to me) wish that me and her other mother would be married, and it’s too much to explain why we aren’t but ‘domestic partner’ is still not a term that has much currency especially when compared to those who are ‘married.’ I hope that one day my kid will appreciate this distinction, because it’s a purposeful one, to us.
I honestly don’t think much about how I will explain any of my books in the future to my kid. She’s been to a number of my readings. She has most definitely heard me read provocative passages (and for sure those of others). So she has some fluency in the literary world, where she understands writers are expected to get up and tell stories in front of audiences. She has recently begun standing up there with me, next to me, which I find endearing and odd. She does like a spotlight.
I love that your son has the feelings he has about school. Maybe because I relate? I was always so into school even when I was trying as many drugs as my friends had access to. It’s more difficult to me imagining being 13 in this time and place--just as I find it difficult to imagine my kid, in 5 years, being 13 in 2023.
I’m sorry I wasn’t clear--the funniest thing about Chelsea and I talking about a motherhood panel at a future AWP is because she is *not* a mother. She’s jokingly been referred to as “Mom” by her peers and students, an energy I appreciate. I interpret it as a grounded force that others experience as solid, reliable, and warm without being too gooey. Maybe “Mom” vs. “Mommy.” Lol, I don’t know, but I find it endearing that people call her that and she accepts it.
I’m stoked to hear you had a production company express interest! Where are things at with that? My limited experience with that was when I was hiking once in 2015 and received an email from Creative Artists Agency asking me if the tv and film rights to Excavation were available. Nothing came of it, but I was WAY excited as I ran down the trail.
I’m excited about your Casey Anthony book. It made me think of another book, only tangentially related, but it was brought to mind nonetheless: The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker, by Michael du Plessis. Have you read it? I will definitely check out Mary’s Monster.
I’ve never written a book proposal before so this is definitely a challenge. A chapter outline. A chapter outline???? I never know exactly what the book is going to do as I’m writing it so outlining the thing chapter by chapter feels slightly ridiculous… “And then…and then…and then” is what my outline feels like. There are a few stories I envision writing that trouble me, that I know will be (understatement) difficult to write about and some part of me groans inwardly and resists. But getting it done is my summer project. Groan.
I agree that our communications now, especially between writers, are partly performance. Most of the time I enjoy that and it’s not a burden. There’s something to the idea of being as engaging a conversationalist (if we call this a conversation) as you are a writer writing writerly things. And when I have opportunities to ask questions and engage with a writer I admire, the ‘performance’ part of it feels more like I’m trying to set a good foundation for myself to learn something. Maybe that’s a little selfish.
This may be totally off base, but I didn’t know before that you drink. I hope it’s obvious I have no judgment about that--just curiosity. I’ve been reading a lot of books this year about addiction in general, like In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, The Body Knows the Score (work about trauma always includes addiction, of course), and most recently, The Recovering, which I loved. As a therapist I gravitate toward the harm reduction model, and in my personal life I have big compassion for all the addicts I know, though my mother is the one I have the most difficult time with. I also have a difficult time with the addictive part of myself, which doesn’t reach full expression in many ways but definitely has a foothold in my psyche. How would you describe your current relationship to drugs and alcohol? And do you imagine a future relationship to/with them? (If this is something you don’t want to discuss, I’ll understand.)
On another note: thank you for the copy of death & facebook! I love getting surprise books in the mail! I assume you are continuing to have a good relationship with Jarett Kobek/We Heard You Like Books. Will you be able to come out to Los Angeles ever?
FH: Jarett and I get along well. He’s been incredibly supportive of my writing, which is awesome, and I think he’s a great writer, so there’s a thrill to his support.* I just found this old start of an essay I wrote a few years ago about falling in love with him after reading his book BTW. It wasn’t real love but it was so typical of the way I can be. My first inclination is, I love you. Admiration, I think, is a form of love. Thankfully, I rewrote the essay into a more straightforward book review.
I’ve been to LA but only for a few hours and entirely in the environs of the bus station. I was taking a Greyhound bus from San Francisco and we stopped in LA to pick up and drop off passengers. I remember thinking to myself “This bus station was one of Richard Ramirez’s haunts.” I would like to return but I feel sort of trapped here at the moment. 2018 has been a really hard year. Suddenly, I’m so unsure of everything.
I’ve been writing a lot, but not really publishing. I guess part of that is that I want to treat my writing like it has more value? I used to rule something “finished” when it appeared it somewhere or was accepted for publication. But after my last book, I backed away from that. My hope is that more people will come to me. And to a certain extent, that’s happened, but it’s a change from the way I used to write. I’m learning to let things sit, but it makes me think of you and my son with school. I think I probably would have enjoyed being more of a scholastic achiever, but after the 7th grade my focus was destroyed. (My friends became everything to me in a very destructive way.) Putting the work in and getting good grades must come with a reward similar to writing well or having something chosen for publication.
Not that I haven’t had the experience of scholastic achievement. While I was living in New York I held it together for a semester or two of college. And recently, I’ve started taking classes online. If I complete a 27 credit library technology program I can make a bit more money, and the credits would be transferable. It’s, of course, ridiculously expensive. I’ve been taking one class a semester, and so far, I’ve only taken two. I did sadistically enjoy writing for my Children’s Literature class and the teacher’s comments on my papers. But taking the classes has driven home how daunting it would be to attempt to get a degree now. How do people do it in compromised circumstances? I know most of them don’t have “a room of their own,” “a bank of their own,” “child care of their own.”
My relationship with drugs is constant.
I feel like I grew up in AA. I was always aware it. At first I thought it was a club my father attended at the library. I wrote in one of my books about having the Serenity Prayer memorized from a very, very young age, because it hung on a mirror in my parent’s bedroom. I always had an awareness of AA, then I learned of its real purpose, and then I was made to go, first in rehabs, then by my mother when she’d let me live at home. (Usually that was the condition when I lived with her after I turned 18, I had to go to meetings.) So I always had a chip on my shoulder about it. I probably viewed it initially as a failing enterprise because my father failed in it. Until I was in my late 20s, I viewed AA as a failing enterprise, a punishment, and a place where creepy dudes went to talk pseudo mysticism while tooling for pussy.
I appreciate AA now: it works for a lot of people, it probably could have worked for me all the times I was surrounded by it, if not for my sour ego and childish resentments. Here I am sounding bitter and cynical, if I’d given AA more of a chance I might sound differently. I would like to be a more spiritual person definitely.
Want to hear a sad story?
After my mom and dad divorced, one of my father’s associates from AA told my mother about my father’s split from the group.
My father had been an AA secretary, or key tag presenter or big book meeting reader: he had some kind of a leadership role in the group. He started showing up to meetings drunk, but not sloppy drunk, so the members hadn’t made a big deal about (seems antithetical to the purpose of AA, but who knows, maybe it was just too awkward to deal with). So he comes to a meeting and says it’s his sobriety anniversary date. Five years! he said, and he wanted a special coin! The group decided to finally confront him. They said, “We know you’ve been drinking! We will not give you that coin!” My father walked out the door. I don’t know if ever made it back.
When I young and in my first rehabs I would once and awhile meet someone who had known my dad “in the rooms.” An acquaintance's husband is a long time AA person and he will sometimes mention my father to me, but it’s always the same story: that when my father was drinking, he was hard to understand because of his accent. (My father was born in Dublin, and had a slight brogue.) I always feel as though he is trying to intimate something cruel when he tells me this story. He probably is.
What probably helped the most (when it came to making my life more manageable) was working at a women’s halfway house. I started working there when my son was three months old, and continued working there for eight years. That, isolation and….
Fiona Helmsley’s Five Point Plan for Getting Clean(er)
Produce a human that you are responsible for (Not planned, but definitely the impetus.)
Work at a halfway house
Live in isolation
Fuck, don’t love (avoid heartbreak)
Find an artistic obsession that requires you to produce things
Time was really important. Putting distance between me and heroin. There’s still a large hole inside of me, and I’d love to get high and escape from it —if there was heroin in front of me I don’t know if I’d be able to say no— but there is a 99.99999999999% likelihood that heroin won’t be in front of me. I don’t have any of those connections, though they’d be easy enough to activate. But I won’t right now with my child in the other room, not being able to drive, in a small town. The compulsion is distant at the moment. A lot of my thinking is AAish but worded and implemented differently: “People, places, and things,” they say. “Isolation,” I say. “I won’t right now,” I write. “One day at a time!” they say.
Working at the halfway house was like working at a constant but better AA meeting. I saw so many women who had lost their kids because of drugs, and I had a small child and that scared the shit out of me. Losing my child would also have been it with me for my family. They put up with a lot, but they would have said “Adios!” to me and probably petitioned the court for custody. My mom never said that to me, but if she had thought my son was in jeopardy, I don’t doubt she would have taken that course.
But Fiona’s five point plan is a fail because she’s not clean! No one wants to hear about “clean-er.”
Yes this is true. I drink irregularly. I drink sometimes when I go out socially. But just as often I don’t. Drinking was never my first choice off the “let’s get fucked up” buffet. It didn’t ruin my life, it never led me to compromise my values in a way I bemoan, so if I want a drink I have one, and the next day life continues, and no one hates me and I lose nothing.
There are also things that I will ingest for extracurricular enjoyment, but mostly because they are so accessible:
Marijuana edibles. I was a big pot head, when I was like, thirteen. Maybe it’s the whole “Gateway Drug” thing all over again! Twelve years of what I consider clean(er) time done in by peanut butter.
No word from the production company. Ha ha. My son hasn’t mentioned it. I wondered how they would have done it anyway.
Publishers should think about the writers who may not submit their manuscripts because of their weird (and labor intensive) outline requirements. That would be my problem too! “In this Chapter, I will write about his impotence: it will be a reoccurring plot point which I will revisit in Chapter 10- 12.” Fuck that. But it might be a sadistically fun, cry- but- ultimately- get –through- it kind of challenge. Every once in a while I confront one of those, and feel rewarded when I make it to the other side.
Have you ever cried writing something? Not because what you were writing about was emotional, but because of the pressure/ frustration you felt trying (and in the moment failing) to get it right? Have you ever put a lot of time and work into something just to ultimately give up on it, or shelf it indefinitely, because it was too hard?
*I feel the same about you.
WCO: I love that you love writers the way you do because I do, too (have you read Writers Who Love Too Much? It’s on my shelf but haven’t read it yet). And I have adored your writing and you through your writing these last few years when we became acquainted, which led me to asking you to write with me. <3 insert little black heart here
I think I get what you’re saying about treating your writing like it has more value (it does)...the way I interpret this for myself is that I used to get a fire under me to send everything out, send it all, yes, garner all the rejections, etc. and that does “work” to some degree...but I also started feeling like the writing’s “worth” took a dive somehow. I am still trying to understand the shift but at some point in 2017 I stopped sending work out. I think this year I’ve had 2 unsolicited submissions out total (I hope by the next missive I’ll have heard yes or no on them). I sent a submission out and then withdrew it the next day, too. There’s something here about being way more intentional about who/where/why/what I send out.
I sooooo appreciate what you’re saying here about your relationship with drugs. I struggle with this question in my head a lot...as a child of alcoholics, as a friend to addicts, as a clinician with clients who struggle with substances, and then of course there are my own proclivities for stepping outside the borders of regular consciousness. I try to write my way into it and through it but a lot of what I’m thinking stays in my head because it’s too conflicted to write out just yet. There’s the very real lure of wanting to get high or fucked up--on occasion--mixed with 1) I’m older and my body can’t take it the way it used to, 2) I have a child and I don’t want to fuck anything up. 3) I’m a clinician and one DUI, for example, would threaten my licensure. That’s it. I guess those are the conflicts. But in my head they take on much more scenery and dialogue and I decide in the end to stay on the conscious side of the border. Momentarily.
So, Fiona, *I* want to hear about “clean-er” and always will. :)
There have been points in the last five years when I wondered if I ever would have any reason to become completely sober. I told one person I could envision it but when I said it I knew some internal part of me was going WAIT A MINUTE. And then I have to wonder about that part. It wants to hang on to my ability to take a sip of this or hit of that and feel something different and...a larger part of me wants that, too. I can identify in my past when I had a much harder time with an “off-switch” when it came to substances (esp. alcohol) but these days my off-switch works pretty well even if it comes in the form of work responsibilities, structure, family responsibilities, etc. I’ve been trying to write about this since my kid was about two and another mother on the playground suggested she’d be down for some psychedelic distraction and I had to decide what I’d do with that--after imagining what I’d like to do with that.
I do also wonder how sober people think and deal with people like me.
Your last question is maybe prescient. I have found myself asking aloud--of my partner, my mentor, a couple of other friends--that if I don’t succeed in the next thing I set my mind to and want very badly, will I be okay? When I asked I knew it sounded...immature? Naive? Frightening? But when I asked it was a real question--this year for me has been rough, too--lots of self-doubt and then this question that kept coming up--if I don’t get ---, will I survive? Which on the one hand sounds like I’m possibly entitled or spoiled or something, but it’s coming from a true place of Will I be able to go on if this doesn’t transpire? And every time I asked it aloud, I knew I was asking something terrifying. And I’m not sure I know the answer yet.
So, yeah, while I may not have cried directly over a piece I cannot write, or a project I’m sorely under-ready or under-ripe for, I most definitely have had emotional responses to these things. The hybrid manuscript I’ve shelved since 2017 still bums me out, because the last editor to see it told me she enjoyed it more so than my books, and I trust her (long story short, my agent suggested to shelve it rather than keep trying to move it forward--mainly because it will definitely be a small press book and she would like to try to sell a bigger book). That manuscript holds so much for me and I don’t know what will come of it. But the bigger project is the one I worry about my existence over if it doesn’t come to fruition. I don’t even want to say much about it now other than I am still teaching myself screenwriting and I still feel compelled by the story in my head and will do whatever I can to make it happen.
Do you find differences in your friendships with writers versus others, haha, like other artists? Or just other people? If so, how are they different?
FH: What a fucking week.
My mother gave me a ride to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday morning, just as Dr. Ford’s testimony was starting. (I had actually thought about rescheduling the appointment for another date, but it was important.) We listened to her testimony on the radio on the way there, and my mother stayed in the car and listened when I went inside. On the way back, I quickly ran into a restaurant to order something for us to go, and we sat in the car listening to her speak until the food was ready.
When I was young, I felt like I couldn’t talk to my mother about anything. (When I got my period, I refused to admit it for years; instead I stole tampons and other supplies from relatives and from under the bathroom sink.) After my appointment, we watched the rest of the testimony on TV together. The whole situation led to a degree of candor that I’ve never experienced in our relationship. I believe more women have experienced sexual assault than haven’t. (I remember one night when I was working at a women’s halfway house, everyone sitting around the table, thirteen women, including myself, had experienced it.) Thursday night, I was absolutely exhausted. Just emotionally spent. I think a lot of that feeling came from knowing that Dr. Ford had put the rest of her life on the line, her entire definition as a person, and despite her courage, candor, and credibility, there was still a great likelihood that Kavanaugh would be confirmed. He would still be allowed to claim his reward. She was making this incredible sacrifice and all that was guaranteed to her in the aftermath was pain.
And, of course, I wondered what if it was me? What if one of the assholes who sexually assaulted me was going to be vaulted to an immense position of power, would I come forward? (Would I just be laughed at, and if there were other women involved, considering my life’s choices—sex work, drug use--- would they think me coming forward was bad for their case?) Would I be willing to let my life be torn apart, gutted, and how easy would it be for anyone looking to dismiss me, as I’ve put so much out there myself? (It seems like Kavanagh’s writer bro is dealing with a just desserts version of this.) All the choices I’ve made that would be used against me. Would it be futile, like hugging a grenade, for me to open my mouth?
Dr. Ford’s testimony made me think about what makes a credible victim. It’s strange to think of victimhood as a class enterprise. I always knew it was, I guess I’ve never thought of my place in it.
A piggish frat boy like Brett Kavanaugh leaves a mark on your life, then you have to live your life in such a way that’s considered beyond Judeo-Christian reproach if one day you should try to hold him accountable. It’s like a twisted fairy tale. One day the monster came, and the princess lived an exemplary life so that she would be believed when she confronted him.
I’ve written rhyming poems in the past (the practice was kind of shamed out of me by what’s considered good in contemporary small press poetry) and I can’t get part of a poem I wrote out of my head as I write this:
What’s the dirtiest thing that you ever did do?
I carved my name in a church pew.
What’s the dirtiest thing that you ever did want?
A preacher in my bed and my momma shot.
My misdeeds weren’t quite so dirty, but they are more than enough to get me dismissed.
With other writers I feel that we have this thing in common. They, for the most part, know how it goes. The solitariness. The rejection. The idiosyncrasies of the peer group. My non-writer/ non- artist friends sometimes cannot understand the long hours and focus with no guarantee of financial reward, but my best readers have all been non-writers. While other writers may appreciate literary flourishes, non- writers may not have the patience for them, and I want to hold non- writers’ attention more. I’m always interested in finding out other writers routines. Like told me he writes at 3 AM, in bed, smoking like a fiend. He also doesn’t self-edit very much, which I find interesting and also kind of enraging. He uses the expression “writer famous” which is apt. With my writer friends I can talk about writerly interests—things my non-writer friends aren’t paying very much attention to. Such as Stephen Elliott’s death knell essay. I had been a fan of his: the interest kind of fell off a few years ago when he started making bad movies. Reading his recent essay was a real epiphany as I wouldn’t expect someone like him to be so clueless and dense. That has to be willful ignorance, considering the writers that wrote for him and the essays that were published at the Rumpus.
Reading his essay led me to search out the Shitty Men in Media list, which I’d read about, but had never read. I was surprised but not shocked to find a writer on it that at one time I thought I knew pretty well. Our relationship had gone to precipice but never over it. By that I mean when you both write about sex and drugs you are candid with each other on those topics. Our relationship was emotionally intimate but nothing more. I was surprised, but not shocked. What I found most interesting was that he had never mentioned to me that his name was on the list. Thinking back, he did say something offhand, that someone wrote “a note” accusing him of something, but he made it seem like it was something minute, and never mentioned it again. Knowing he was on that list, it puts the way he described some things that were happening in his life at the time in question.
I wrote in GGO about a quote that has always resonated with me and served me well. “The more he spoke of his virtue, the faster we counted our spoons.” This person liked to speak of his virtue, but in a way that intimated he was working on it. Striving, with the goal. You can’t argue with that. But it is a rather clever way to give yourself cover. You are admitting that you are flawed. Not everyone is willing to do that. The questionable part becomes whether or not you are actually working on doing better.
Since it came up rather organically—do you have a writing routine?
WCO: This month has been taxing. I read your response at the beginning of the month. Rereading it at the end of the month I feel like I’m ten years away from the first time I read it. The experience you describe having with your mother: imagine that happening to countless others, on a grand scale, with the attending kaleidoscope of feelings, nuances, characters, etc., all at the same time (I know this from talking to friends and definitely in my experience as a counselor--that hearing was one incredible trigger). The day of the hearing will be seared into my memory as the day I was in Seattle and got a call saying, Your mom has to be admitted to emergency today. I knew I could not handle listening to the hearing on top of reading social media about the hearing while worried about my mother from a thousand miles away, in a city that used to not be strange to me but now totally is. It was a devastating day in so many ways and I had even kept myself guarded for about 12 hours from news or social media. Instead I saw my oldest half-sister, who took me out to lunch, and proceeded to process some of her own experiences, touched off by listening to the hearing. When I flew home the next morning I was 100% thrown into caregiving for my mother while she was in the hospital, then out, and suddenly dealing with a number of medical procedures--catheters, biopsies, dialysis, insulin injections--that were completely new for us.
At the end of this month, my mother’s health has improved and the state of the world is of course worse.
Also this month, I sat in front of a group of attorneys and prosecutors, not long after the Kavanaugh confirmation, and read the chapter of Excavation titled “Why I Didn’t Tell” which features a line about fearing sitting in a courtroom, the judgments against me and my sexual behaviors obfuscating the real problem: that my teacher was a predator.
A couple of days later I thought I saw my teacher in the world, in of all places, the lobby of one of my psychotherapy offices. In a nutshell, while I’ve processed PLENTY about that relationship, just invoking it as I did at the San Diego DA’s office brought it right back. That hasn’t happened to me since my twenties, thinking I see him in public.
How is it that Stephen Elliott made the dumb(est) shit move of publishing his terrible essay the week after the Kavanaugh confirmation? I think it goes beyond clueless and dense--he’s deluded and harmful.
I too searched out the list in the last couple of weeks. I’m disturbed that a big venue gave space to anonymous people from the list *after* SE’s bombshell lawsuit was announced. In fact, I believe that I could actually guess one of the identities based on their words, their impressions, their writing style. If not, there’s still a lingering sense in that piece (and others!) of, SE is not being productive with this move! and by the way, there was a misunderstanding about why my name appears on this list. Really? Every single anonymous dude with the gall to ANONYMOUSLY comment is just the victim of a misunderstanding?
I could go on. This month has felt like I could go on and on about a lot of things and it would turn into a wail.
I am careful about people who speak too much and too often about their virtue.
My experience is that speaking of one’s virtue is a good cover. I have fallen for that.
If every dude who had something to say publicly (ANONYMOUSLY, which never fails to make me cackle) about their inclusion on the list had said something earlier, publicly, or even privately reached out to the women in their lives to say, hey, this exists--to open up conversation, to welcome room for feedback, healing, mediation--whatever form it need(ed) to take--but no. They waited until after the SE shit hit the fan. I find this weak, inauthentic, and unacceptable.
This morning I was wishing I had a writing routine. I’ve been extremely out of sorts in the last year. Are these hormonal changes or midlife reckonings or the overall state of the world, or all of the above.
I do write every morning in a notebook--2 pages of nothing consequential. That writing will maybe be what I look at ten years from now if I’m trying to write about this particular time period. As for anything else more structured that might resemble a routine? Not really. I’ve been battling a lot of doubt, internal destructive critique, and low energy this year. I had a couple months where I was devoting time and energy to a tv treatment, but that fell away. I did write today about how I would like to have more of a practice and wondering what I’ve been doing that has prevented that, and what I can do to make it more possible.
May I ask the dreaded question: what are you working on these days?
FH: I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with your mom. To even think about my mother’s eventual frailty risks riling up my weird superstitious OCD. Since I was a kid, I’ve engaged in nonsense rituals to quell my anxiety often in relation to the health and safety of people I love. Nan Goldin said she thought if she photographed her friends enough they would never die. One of my rituals is very similar. I take pictures of my son every morning before he leaves for school. If I’ve forgotten until the last minute, it’s just a blurry image of his sleeve as he runs out the door. It’s more that I’m fearful of what will happen if I don’t, as if the pictures offer some form of protection. I know it’s not rational. I know it’s some deep-seated insecurity having to do with my lack of control in the world. The photographs are just one manifestation.
I saw this great meme (how lame does that sound) about how women are told that to go out at night is to risk sexual assault, to travel alone is to risk sexual assault, to wear a short skirt to risk sexual assault, yet when a woman reports she’s been sexually assaulted, suddenly it’s suspect. You’re told to prepare for it, it’s around the corner, coming for you, yet when it does, twist-o change-o, you’re not to be believed. What you did is so admirable.
I’ve been out of sorts this year too. I know a big part of it is Trump. 2016-2017, it was still a novelty. A horrible novelty, but it was new and shocking. It seemed unreal, and although naïve, I didn’t think it could continue. I underestimated the greed and hypocrisy of Republicans. In 2018 it became entrenched. A way of life. The constant chaos, the constant degradation of intelligence and morality. I’ve found it really hard to write about, and I did write about it in the months before he assumed office, but in a way that was more anecdotal. In March I started an essay about my anger and disgust and how one night it led me to do something stupid. As of this writing, I’ve been unable to finish the essay. There’s a section on morality I’ve been struggling with. At the same time, that’s how degraded I feel we’ve become as a country: I feel like so much has become black and white, that what he’s done is such a rebellion against basic values, but it’s hard for me to write about it, because for so long, I’ve been inclined to shades of grey. There’s a way to write about morality that doesn’t read like talking down to people or shining one’s halo. David Wojnarowicz was very good at it. I’m still working on it.
As to what I’m working on, there’s that essay, a long essay on Casey Anthony that still needs to be edited, an essay about my driving debacles. I rewrote an old fiction story that I’m going to submit to contest, something I’ve never done before, because I love the judge’s writing. So there are a few different things. What’s different is something that I mentioned to you earlier in the year: I haven’t been publishing much. Just storing things away. For what, I don’t know. Another book I suppose.
I’ve spent the last ten years working, writing and raising my son. Every once in a while there would be a person who I had a romantic interest in, but those three shared my focus. This year my priorities changed a bit, and the change was related to the reception to my last book. Many of the websites I’d written for in the past ignored GGO, even though essays I’d published with them were in the book. I accepted that the segment of the small press I had been targeting my writing towards just does not embrace my writing and most likely never will. I have my theories as to why, but it doesn’t matter. They are one segment. The small press, despite its name, is a big place. I’ll find other outlets, but it’s been a big change, not publishing as much.
I actually thought I might die this year. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I was driving so much, and I identified myself as someone who was not a driver and some part of me saw fucking with that identity as a risk heavy proposition, perhaps something the universe never intended for me to do. Like I’d put all this effort into this potentially life-altering endeavor and bang! I’d get into an accident and die. Well it didn’t happen or hasn’t happened yet. I have still have December to get through. If I die, remember I called it first!
This year, I also discovered this writer I really like. His name is John O’Dowd. He wrote a biography about the actress Barbara Payton, and he’s just released a massive book of her photographs that was obviously such a labor of love. He doesn’t get much attention because the subjects he writes about are more niche interests, like badly behaved B-list ‘40s and ‘50s movie stars, but I find his work incredibly inspiring. He writes about people he obviously finds fascinating, and allows their stories to take over his life, with not much thought to the size of the audience sharing his interest. I spent most of my decade as a writer writing from that place, and I feel like that’s where I went wrong with my last book. With Girls Gone Old I wanted to feel the hug of the audience. And when I didn’t, it threw me for a minute. I’m working to getting back to that place.
Thanks for inviting me to do this with you. xo