page one

a friend said it has been hard to keep up with what i’m doing and asked what, precisely, i am working on now.

which is funny because i have no idea.

i went to washington to network with other people who love dead people and determined to sell myself as a biographical editor/researcher/assistant/anything for the very practical reason that if i’m going to keep doing this beyond august, then i’m in dire need of another revenue stream.

that was the plan. i was going to focus on getting money and worry about jackie when i got home.

when i saw her at breakfast, stacy schiff (of whose memory i am now in awe) asked, is it still all jackie all the time? and i shrugged my shoulders and said, eh, because it really wasn’t.

but then people asked who my subject was and when i said jackie they kind of rolled their eyes and started to walk away and there was nothing to do but put on my full jackie: the tabloid years regalia and stop them and say, wait. you really don’t even know.

and their eyes would widen and, by conversation’s end, i’d have them nodding away and riddled with envy over the awesomeness of my research materials.

i went to washington to make money and returned ready to ready to kill the first 150 pages of the book i wrote five years ago and begin at the beginning. with that paragraph i put down on paper in january 2004 for the first assignment in tracey weiner’s “writing biography” class.

at the time, i thought it was the first paragraph of the twelfth chapter of a book i’d not yet written, but i was wrong. it’s page one.

seeing the dolphin

(25 may 2011)

in the mid-90s there were these posters. i’m sure they had a name, but i don’t know it. regardless, there were these posters and you were supposed to stand and stare and squint at just the right angle and then suddenly, from among 800 thumbnails of al gore or whatever, the image of a dolphin would emerge.

once you’d seen the dolphin, there was no not seeing the dolphin.

and if you didn’t see the dolphin, those posters just really pissed you off.

writing is like those posters. in the sense that once you’ve glimpsed the possibility, you can’t ever not see it. nor can you really show it to someone else.

my vision of precisely what it is i’m trying to do is blurred at best, but occasionally it comes into crystalline focus. and, as though the sun has slipped out from under a cloud, there are these moments where everything is entirely possible and the path is perfectly clear.

the trouble with these moments is that they do not last. and they are few and far between. to date, i’ve had two.

one in new york in march as i walked down 6th avenue in the rain listening to “down in the valley” on repeat. the other this past weekend in washington, when a two mile hike to the lincoln memorial done in ill-advised flats felt like nothing because i was walking on air.

i’m not an expert, i’m barely a writer and i’ve no clue what i’m doing beyond the fact that i’m, at present, not writing at least four different things. but the one thing i do know is that there are these moments and they are the key.

they must be felt to the fullest. lived. savored. sunk into like a hot bath at a long day’s end.

because, on most days, the only thing that rings true is that i will wind up abandoned, incontinent and riddled with mouth cancer. yet, in the midst of that black pit of impossibles, there are still these moments, and they are enough.

once you’ve glimpsed the possibility, you can’t ever not see it. once you’ve seen the dolphin, it is always there.

biography = deprivation

(24 may 2011)

biographers don’t eat. at their conferences the food is placed strategically just beyond the bar, which is surrounded by such a crush of people that one can never break through.

in my many futile attempts to reach the mountains of canapés i could see on the other side of the room, i spent a significant portion of this weekend’s conference in lines leading to bars, which is where this question always seemed to be making the rounds: how much sleep do you get?

biographers don’t sleep. the hourly average among them was four. people looked at me with wide-eyed wonder and blatant envy upon the admission that i’d been clocking in at five and a half. my smugness was short-lived.

before leaving for DC i’d resolved that the summer belonged to jackie and that she was going to get an hour every morning.

i’m back from DC. jackie’s getting her hour. last night i got four hours of sleep. it has aged me a bare minimum of 800 years, but there is a silver lining: i’m a biogapher at last.

t-minus 857

(17 may 11)

writers pretend it’s easy. it isn’t.

i’ve set a deadline. we’re already 239 days in. which is shocking. and horrifying. and scary. because i so vividly remember that moment, the back of that cab, that night of 20.09.10 when 20.09.13 seemed so very very reasonably far away. it does not seem so reasonable now.

but slowly, slowly i am getting better at this. not good, just better.

for instance, i now know that the week before there’s a big biographical step to be taken, i’ll be stricken with an abject terror toward forward motion of any kind.

for eight days, everything will be impossible. i will never write enough. my words will never be worth enough. i’ll never finish jackie book, much less publish it. i’ll never be a biographer, much less make a living off it. i will be an embarrassing failure and everyone will know (a) the ostentatiousness of my dreams and (b) my spectacular inability to achieve them.

the only thing of which i am absolutely certain during these eight days, the only possibility that rings in any way true, is that i really will, for all my jokes about it, one day wind up in a ditch- abandoned, incontinent and riddled with mouth cancer.

which is a totally awesome thing about which to be entirely certain.

i’m becoming a biographer, which is what i’ve been inching towards for the last 20 years. i’m becoming a biographer via freelance editing and the writing of totally unbiographical things, but i’m becoming a biographer nonetheless. which is great and all, yes, but i’m not so far in that i can’t turn back. i’m not in so deep that there’s not a temptation to up and quit it all.

i won’t. because you’re all watching.

and because i have business cards. and i need to go to paris. and i sat behind stacy schiff. and for right now, that has to be enough, those little hints that form a piece of the extremely backward path i am taking to get to where i want to wind up. these glints of possibility in the midst of a black pit of impossibles, they leave the door open just the tiniest bit. and jackie and i, we’re skinny. we can squeeze in.

writers make it look easy. it isn’t. i’ve given myself a mere 857 days when it’s a hell of hard thing that i want to do. which- given that i stand miles from where i’m headed and am fueled by a fear of incontinence and mouth cancer- would seem hilarifyingly inadequate, so prepare yourself for the ballsy, stupid, arrogant, unladylike thing i am about to say…

i have 857 days. and i know it in my bones. it will not take that long.

it’s jackie dead day

(19 may 2011)

this likely matters to no one but me and caroline kennedy. but, i swear, people, it’s important. i wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for this.

on two separate occasions last friday, i was confronted with the question: so what’s happening with jackie?

on my lunch break, my mother asked it over the phone, as i slipped my bare feet into the frigid waters of the small stream that runs through the little garden that’s sprung up by the art institute.

i counted the change accumulated at the bottom and wondered how big a wish one gets for 16 cents.

and then there it was again, when k.lo leaned over the table at katie i’s peruvian birthday dinner and asked the exact same thing. i was halfway through a virgin daiquiri, which- it was increasingly clear- was, in fact, not a virgin.

what is happening with jackie?

it’s a question for which i have no answer, but i’ve got ideas. huge, incredibly expensive, wildly implausible, recklessly bold, impossible to execute ideas.

but if the jackie i love- the jackie of the 70s, the jackie whom history has erased and who went braless and saw sex movies and married a greek- has taught me anything, it is that life is an adventure. that we must always be present. that anything is possible. and anything can be.

the mental health day

i took a mental health day yesterday. chicago and i’ve had a rough spell what with winter and the rain and a mental health day seemed a logical response to a three-day period in which i flew a plane, rode a motorcycle, frolicked among dandelions, went to detroit, killed a goose and spent 6 hours squinting into a sea of hawaiian print.

best. life. choice. ever.

and so i stayed home. and the funny thing is, i didn’t realize what i was doing until the day was nearly done. and then i thought about it and i realized what i’d done was unknowingly genius.

because i’m working toward something here and it’s going to be awesome. but in the meantime, it’s going to be really, really exhausting. i know that. i don’t like it, but i know. and i’m ready now.

here’s where the mental health day comes in.

because my mental health day went like this… i woke up at 8 and read until 10. i went for a walk. i wrote The Column. i made a wrap that was a staggeringly close approximation of the Wrap of My Life (more on that later). i finally, finally revised the blasted religious beast and submitted it to the naked lady bar. and i edited 20 pages from one to five. in short, i lived like a writer.

what i just described there, what i did not realize even as i was doing it, is that this is my absolute perfect work day. this is what i’m working toward. it’s an ideal and it may not happen just like that, but it’s nice to know it’s there. it’s good to have a reminder. it’s good to have the memory of that moment of ah, yes.  it is going to be worth it.  

20.09.13

(27 january 2011)

being a writer is just about the most pretentious thing one can be.

there’s this guy. the parakeet. he’s a writer. as in, he leads with that.

sample dialogue…

oline: and, dear person i’m meeting for the first time in my life, what do you do?
parakeet: I. AM. A WRITER.
oline: [grand silence, punctuated by monumental eyeroll]

end scene.

yeah. um… no.

my reluctance to own up to the fact that biography is what i want to do is, in part, rooted in the intolerable belief that i will, at some point, come off looking like the parakeet. because if being a writer is pretentious then being a biographer is pretentious times ten.

nobody reads biography. surely it couldn’t take more than ten people to write for an audience of none.

i never wanted to be a writer. that is a fact to which i clung through all of college. but we do not always wind up where we think we’re going. we sometimes have to become the very thing that makes us roll our eyes.

to keep the winter glums at bay, i’m walking to work in the mornings. this has led to a couple early a.m. conversations with a friend, wherein we have wrestled with this very thing. with the realignment of expectations. an openness to adventure. the acceptance of the seemingly unacceptable fact that your life may not look like everyone else’s. and the knowledge that that really is ok.

i am trying to be a biographer. for real. for, like, a living.

i don’t know that i’ve explicitly said that before here because it comes wrapped in a whole fear of failure that makes it a scary as hell thing to say. but that’s what it comes down to. this past september, as i rode in the back of a cab through downtown chicago in the middle of a night, i concluded that writing biography was not so much a dream as the end goal.

thanks to a story about jim carrey that may or may not be apocryphal, i picked a date and put it down on paper.

i have tried, ever since, to live as though the date on that piece of paper were an absolute truth. non-negotiable and totally binding. this has made most days feel like a death march undertaken in badly beaten up boots.

because this is a journey of micro-movements. of painfully, infintesimally teeny tiny steps. it’s hard not to be discouraged. by silence. by a lack of measurable success. by loneliness. by forty pound boxes or by the lifetime of poverty that seems to loom.

but then there are times when i open my wallet and the date taped in there doesn’t strike me so much as a horrible threat or a big, scary unknown, but rather as a delicious possibility. and it makes me smile to have been so bold.

and i’m well aware i may not make it. i might not be there on that day then. but i’ll be further than i am now. i will have moved a million painfully, infintesimally teeny tiny steps closer.