Tara Ison’s memoir released last week from Soft Skull Press to glowing reviews. Tara is also the author of the novels The List; A Child Out of Alcatraz, a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Rockaway, selected as a 2013 Best Books of Summer by “O” Magazine. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Nerve.com, Publishers Weekly, and numerous anthologies. She is the co-author of the cult film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Find out more about her on Facebook and Twitter.
Excerpt from Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies
Soft Skull Press
© Tara Ison 2015
Exerpt from: How To Be A Writer: The Beach House, The Bathrobe, and Saving the World
Rich and Famous
The World According To Garp
The Big Picture
I am, in my beginning, a plagiarist.
As a kid I was effortlessly good at a little bit of a lot of things. Which was fine, but complicated by having benevolently enthusiastic and supportive parents: twirl a bit, and You can be a ballerina! Swim a few laps without gulping water into your lungs – Aim for the Olympics! Nurse that baby bird back to health – You’ll be a brilliant doctor some day! No future occupation was beyond my casual grasp, thanks to my obvious if gestational talent. One day, when I was around six or seven and feeling bored (or perhaps terrified) by all of my looming potential, my mother suggested I go into my room and write something. A poem, a story, a song. I liked the sound of that. I retreated behind my closed door, armed with pencil and paper, to go write something. To go be a writer. I sat on my bed and waited for the easy en pointe twirl, the smooth glide through waves, the robust flap of tiny wings.
Nothing came, except for panic. A fear of failure. The blank, dun-colored page of my school tablet glared.
This wasn’t easy – but the concept of labor required for victory seemed inelegant, even absurd. I waited for achievement to come, magically – and I didn’t know how long a writer should take before coming out of her room with a poem, a story, a song. But I couldn’t come out without having become a writer. Without having written something.
Or – here was a way out – without having something written.
I pulled from my shelf an old book of poems for children, took it into my closet, crouched on the ground next to my MaryJanes, and copied out, word for word, in deceptively bold little-girl block letters, a poem I found there about a little girl and an apple tree. Something about apples, and maybe some baskets to fill. A couple of rhymed quatrains, most likely an apple/dapple, tree/free type of scheme. And presented it with a nervous flourish to my mother. I awaited judgment. The proclamation: A whole poem, you wrote this, it’s brilliant, my God, you’ll be a writer some day, you are a writer, now, already, a fine, fine writer. Go, write!
Six years old, I’m told I’m a Writer, and it’s an abrupt joy to me, a rush, suddenly the coolest, most crucial thing in the world to be. It obliterates the pallid pastel ballerina in my mind, scoffs at the meager dangle of a gold medal around my neck, burns from my nose the medicinal scent of doctorhood. I don’t know why this identity, this label – You’re a writer – hits me so hard, but it lures. It sounds both private and exhibitionist. Adult, yet redolent of mud pies, of popsicle stick creation. It smells of fresh-sharpened Ticonderoga pencils and beloved, transcendent books. And how easy it was! (And I want the victory of it badly enough to ignore the crunch of the lie in my gut.)
I wanted to be a Writer long before I ever wanted to write.
* * *
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Kids see this question in primary colors, in the rub-a-dub-dub nursery rhyme world of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Kids generally don’t proclaim a desire to become systems analysts or data processors; they have to be able to see what people do or make, and see people doing or making it. In my childhood world, my friends and I looked to our mothers and fathers and steps, to our immediate experience of going to school, getting booster shots, playing with the family dog, and then we latched on to the corporeal, easily-identifiable idea that people become teachers or doctors or veterinarians. Of course, there were also movies and TV to look to, so we also planned to become actresses, ballerinas, and rock stars.
But I didn’t know any writers. There weren’t any down the street or at friends’ houses or school. Both of my parents were readers, which helped, which breathed the printed word out into the daily air and atmosphere – ubiquitous books were used for coasters, makeshift forts, notepads, and tantrum-inspired missals, and gift certificates to B. Dalton were the favorite Christmas, Hannukah, and birthday presents. I was wildly fortunate that books were a quotidian part of life. But there weren’t any writers to see, to watch, to look to or at. The posed author photos on book jackets didn’t count; I studied those faces for their writerly secrets, but they just looked like ordinary frozen-in-a-pose people. Even in the movies or on TV, I just didn’t see any writers around, doing their writerly thing.
So, six years old, and not only do I want to be a writer, I’m supposed to already be one. I can see the productof writers, everywhere, the thing the writer makes, and I love the scent of it, the feel of the paper, the pussy-willow corner tips of worn hardbacks, the fanning flip of paperbacks, the look of pages stuffed thick with print. But I can’t see The Writer anywhere, the doing of the writing, the action itself, the model. And I know, of course, that it is a lie, my being a Writer, my first dirty little secret, first fraud, that book of children’s poems buried under shoes in my closet, and my stomach twisting when I think of that, and I know I better find out, fast, how to be a real Writer, before the world is on to me.
* * *
The first movie about a writer I ever saw was Julia in 1977, when I was thirteen. I was still supposed to be a writer, which is easy when you’re a child – kids can say they’re going to be whatever, and don’t need to provide supporting evidence for it. So, aside from that one purloined poem, I never actually produced any writing – I was waiting for the writing to just appear.
Then, Julia. Opening credits, then a lovely twilight shot of an isolated clapboard beach house lit from within, and the sound, the sound of typing – the crisp, old fashioned clack clack clack, the kind you know is generated from a tinny, antiquated manual typewriter before you even see it, and, sure enough, we enter the beach house to find Lillian Hellman typing away, in a chenille robe, her hair rumpled, the toughening touches of a cigarette dangling at her lip and a tumbler of half-drunk amber liquid nearby. It’s 1934 (calendar with Roosevelt on the wall), and she’s writing writing away. I have no idea who Lillian Hellman is, but here is a Writer, that much is clear. The first living, breathing, moving image of a Writer I’ve seen. I suddenly want that chenille bathrobe, I want that forehead attractively creased up in thought. She stops stabbing at the keys and peers at the page; the typewriter ribbon is black-and-red, and I vaguely remember my grandfather owning a typewriter like that, one you didn’t plug in, one that didn’t respond to a whisper of touch but that you had to jab at, hard, with your unaccustomed fingers, the firm left- handed push needed for the carriage to drop down a line, and how you hit a certain key to raise the red strip of ribbon up to type in crimson ink for emphasis. I remember what effort it took to type anything, the conviction you needed with each single letter or number or punctuation mark, each decisive punch. I realize I never saw my grandfather actually use that old manual typewriter, and I wonder what he kept it around for – was he, in fact, a writer? Did he type away on hidden novels at night, is there a secret stash of poems and plays? Is being a writer actually in my genes, my blood? I used to play on that typewriter when I was a kid, and I make a mental note to find it; maybe my parents have the thing stashed in the garage.
Lillian doesn’t like what she sees on the page – she tears the sheet from the typewriter’s grip, throws it in a trashcan full of crumpled pages, and goes to the window; outside a worn-faced but handsome man is heading up from the ocean’s edge with a bucket, where he has obviously dug them a dinner of clams. The first line of dialogue, I remember so clearly:
It’s not working again, Dash! It’s
falling apart again.
I recall feeling that in-the-closet kind of frustrated panic, and watching Lillian confirm this idea is comforting; writing is effort – it wasn’t just me and my stupidity! – it is work, it’s something you have to build and then have to watch fall apart. It’s a rickety city of warped wooden blocks, a sandcastle precariously close to sea. But she’s a Real Writer, so surely there are tricks to get you by, secrets to be learned. Maybe it’s just the effort of that manual typewriter that’s necessary, and then the rest is graceful ease.
I begin taking notes.
Dash – himself the Real Writer Dashiell Hammett, though at thirteen, I have no clue – tells her to put on a sweater, drink some whiskey, he’ll build a fire and they’ll have dinner. We cut to her sitting before the fire, wearing a lumpy cardigan (I want that sweater), drinking the whiskey, and moping.
If you really can’t write, maybe you
should go find a job. Be a waitress.
What about a fireman, huh?
I’m in trouble with my goddamn play
and you don’t care!
He suggests she go to Paris to work on the play, or Spain, there’s a civil war going on there and maybe she can help somebody win it. Maybe she can visit her friend Julia there. She’s barely listening.
I can’t work here!
So don’t work here. Don’t work anyplace.
It’s not as if you’ve written anything
before, you know. Nobody’ll miss you.
It’s the perfect time to change jobs.
OK, I tell myself; so she isn’t a writer, not really, not yet. No wonder she can’t do it. No wonder she’s struggling. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard for her; she isn’t the Real Thing.
You’re the one who talked me into being a
writer, Dashiell. You’re the one who said
stick with it, kid, you got talent, kid!
You softsoaped me with all that crap.
Now look at me.
If you’re going to cry about it, go stand
on a rock. Don’t do it around me. If you
can’t write here, go someplace else. Give
it up. Open a drugstore. Be a coalminer.
Only just don’t cry about it.
She certainly should just give it up, I think. Why work so hard? In my mind, of course, that doesn’t mean she can’t still be a writer, at least in name. Just keep telling people you are one.
We retreat to Lillian’s childhood memories of her beloved friend Julia, where Young Lillian is unformed, bewildered and intimidated by this worldly, glamorous girl. They grow up; mature Julia is brilliant, idealistic, wholly committed to social justice and willing to fling herself into a crowd of marauding Fascist thugs. I don’t understand most of her politics or philosophies, but she’s clearly a muse for Lillian, with her lacy blonde hair, her passion for an engaged life. There’s clarity and enlightenment in her very blue eyes. She’s damned intoxicating. I fall under her spell, too:
Work hard! Take chances! Be very bold!
she calls back to Lillian as she leaves for Oxford, and I realize those are the very three things I’ve never done, I don’t know how to do, and they aren’t really necessary, really, are they? But if Julia wants me to, perhaps, perhaps…I feel inspired, emboldened. I want to earn Julia’s approval.
Lillian visits her later and mentions she isn’t writing much; Julia urges her to get involved with people who are really “doing something” to change the world, then Lillian will know what to write about.
I will ! I will! I make an italicized mental note of this: I will change the world! I feel raring to go. I will take up my mighty pen and do battle! As soon as the movie is over.
Lillian goes to Paris to write, as per Dash’s advice and on his money; she holes up in the charmingly crummy Hotel Jacob, for seven seconds of typing among scattered plates of bread and cheese and fruit and half-drunk glasses of red wine. By now I’m looking hungrily for such images, taking notes on the Writer Writing, so I can see the Working Hard, the Taking Chances, the Being Very Bold. It all looks marvelous. Lillian is wearing a white linen blouse, and I love bread and cheese and fruit, I’m sure I’ll love red wine some day, but it’s seven seconds, that’s all. A tease. So, how do you get from the cheese and the bread to saving the world? And what is she writing? Does that matter?
Lillian sees oppressed workers marching for their rights outside her window, and retreats, frightened – she’s no Julia. Julia is the one doing something; Julia has been fighting those thugs on her mission to stop Mussolini and Hitler, and Lillian finds her beaten to a pulp in a Viennese hospital. Soon afterward, Julia mysteriously disappears, and Lillian decides to go on home.
We’re back to the beach house and the bathrobe. A sandwich, a bottle of beer, and more thrilling but fleeting images of Lillian writing, images I scrutinize for their secrets. Is that how you sit, is that how you bite into bread, is that the pace one types at? (And what the hell is she writing?) She screams in frustration; she hurls the typewriter out the window. Then, a quick later, a proud smile as she types THE END five times at the bottom of a page. It’s an orgasmic fulfillment, an achievement of enormous weight. We never did learn what Lillian was writing, what she found that was so important to write about, but no, it doesn’t matter; the work is done and it only took a minute, even less. The Saving the World can begin.
Now Dash is seated in an Adirondack chair on the porch, reading the pages. Lillian watches him read, and my heart starts to pound…because it isn’t finished, it isn’t all over. Someone must now read those naked, fuzzy, black ink words. I remember awaiting my mother’s judgment, the proclamation of victory or defeat. This is horrible. I see Lillian’s anxiety, but I’m sure it will be fine for her – she’s done all the right things, hasn’t she? She’s in a beach house, she’s in Paris, in a chenille robe, in a linen blouse, she used a manual typewriter that demanded firm conviction. And Julia is her dear friend, believes in her, told her to be bold and work hard and take chances, and I’m sure she did, she’s actually written, we watched her do it. So she’s a writer now, right?
You want to be a serious writer. That’s
what I like, that’s what we work for. I
don’t know what happened, but you better
tear that up. Not that it’s bad. It’s
just not good enough. Not for you.
Again, still no idea what she actually wrote, only that it’s not good enough. I would be devastated, I’d fall apart, dissolve into tears at such lacerating dismissal, and I’m sure now she’ll walk away, become a fireman, or a waitress. But I’m stunned by Lillian’s impassive face, by the fact that she doesn’t crumple; I’m even more stunned by the immediate return to work, by the black-and-red typewriter ribbon sent on its jerking, scrolling way, by the late-night and early-morning attacks on the keys intercut with more walks on the beach and chopping an onion and gazing at the ocean through a clapboard window…then back at the desk, always, back to work. I’m amazed by this; it rivals, in my mind, Julia’s foolhardy courage and her subsequent beating. I don’t understand how Lillian has survived Dash’s brutal attack; I don’t get her willingness to hurl herself back into a crowd of thugs.
But, I console myself; it’s only thirty seconds or so of screen time, no real sweat. She still looks elegant as hell.
Dash reads the rewritten pages, while Lillian paces on the beach, tries to smoke a cigarette, tries not to watch. He finally walks over to her, an agonizingly slow walk.
It’s the best play anyone’s written in
a long time.
(Ah, a play, she’s been writing a play…)