Writerly ambition is a potent force. It can be the driving force of a life. If you’ve been bitten by this snake in the garden of your own reading and writing, you know it immediately. But you can’t know if your culture will recognize powerful new ambition in your work, or the courage it takes you to write it, or the scope toward which you’re striving.
Bravery takes many forms, but society doesn’t recognize all forms equally or even see all forms.
Wendy Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook deploys 89 prose poems to perform the myriad sensibilities of a poet who is about to risk everything by writing.
On the ground level, this slim, elegant work tracks Ortiz’s return to an unnamed abandoned writing project; from the many contextual clues she provides, it seems that it’s her devastating first memoir, Excavation.
Yet while, in a certain sense, Hollywood Notebook is a book about another book, it is also a great work in its own right. With its dynamic portrayal of a passionate, idiosyncratic artist coming into her full powers, this work is my favorite of Ortiz’s two memoirs.
At 45, Virginia Woolf stated, “Very little is known about women.” Notebook captures Ortiz in her sunny, often grungy, but captivating hometown in an almost primal act of existential and artistic becoming that induces her to write so openly and evocatively that no one can credibly utter Woolf’s words again.
What Is a War Story?
After graduating from Dartmouth, Phil Klay served as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008. After that, he attended an MFA program in New York, where he developed Redeployment, his debut collection of stories. His raw, grim, and sometimes journalistic short works render the harsh and harrowing explosions that shape the experiences of American soldiers in the post-9/11 wars. His characterizations are shocking, affecting, and empathetic.
Klay’s debut volume has gone on to win great recognition, including the National Book Award for Fiction. Perhaps because of its rich multiplicity of American perspectives and voices, it has seemed in its reception to overtake other highly regarded chronicles of the current wars.
Yet as I read Ortiz’s work I start to wonder what a war story really is. I start to wonder what an enemy is and what a battlefield is.
I start to feel that a female artist laboring intensely to come to terms with a past that is in places as black as pitch, a past with respect to which she openly explores her own agency, can show more courage than an author who spent a year in Anbar Province.
And I decide that this is something our society must consider.
William James in the Library
When I was in college in the mid-1980s, I was a shy, quiet English major opposed to war as I understood it. One day in the library I found a 1910 essay by William James (collected in 2000 by Joyce Carol Oates in her Best American Essays of the Century). In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James explores something that is obvious, but hard to see, and even harder to keep seeing when one is surrounded by the propaganda of one’s own day: we human beings are fundamentally enamored of war.
We are so because of our inevitable respect for war’s challenges, because of our admiration for soldiers throughout history as well as in literature and art, and because of our love for the people who leave our homes and neighborhoods, who deploy and redeploy, and who sometimes enable us in the worst way, as we make a mess of what is ours and also a disaster of what belongs to others.
Yet, despite war’s ravages, humanity finds nothing more compelling than the good soldier, according to James. Throughout his essay, he asserts an ideal, “a type of military character which everyone feels that the race should never cease to breed, for everyone is sensitive to its superiority.”
Thus, in James’s view, wars are primarily started not by a transgressive bullet, or by the violation of a border, or by a real or imagined threat, but rather out of our desire to see superior men in action. Wars allow us to witness an ancient kind of greatness. Because of this, they are past and present and future events we hold dear. They are a “sacred spiritual possession.”
Yet James thought that war was a tragedy, and he argues that human experience does not have to be soaked in sacrificial blood. Societies can begin to defy their militarist leanings by embracing a new “moral equivalent of war,” one in which human valor can be upheld without so many lives being ruined or destroyed.
He posits that people can take big risks and move in courageous directions without indulging the habit of war.
I might have been inspired, however briefly, by this idea when I decided to spend some of my twenties and thirties reporting on human rights abuses.
And today James’s idea still seems valid and important to me. But now I question one of his premises: the way he projects the possible discovery of a moral equivalent of war far into the future.
Because the moral equivalent of war has always been upheld in America, and it was upheld in James’s time—but just by people he might have been unwilling to recognize.
In fetishizing the Homeric masculine ideal of the classic soldier, James fails to articulate the diversity of heroism, the often unconventional nature of courage, and all the different demonstrations of valor that were already transforming his society.
For example, when James was alive, black people risked their lives in order to battle the backlash against them that was endemic in the post-Reconstruction era.
Women struggled for and finally won the vote 10 years after James wrote this essay.
I don’t know to what extent James was aware of these efforts. But it does seem that it is easy for society to celebrate conventional valor in the lives of some people, but not a far, far greater valor in the lives of others.
Wendy Ortiz’s Act of Excavation
In austere prose, Wendy Ortiz’s Excavation exposes the author’s long emotional journey with a narcissistic English teacher, who—when she was a lonely and neglected only child in a home that was drowned by waves of addiction, estrangement, and silence—enticed her and manipulated her for his sexual and emotional gratification.
The student was in middle school when the teacher got started. She was 17 when the relationship ended. The experience was almost shattering.
In one mark of Ortiz’s courage she clarifies over and over that she and the man she now names Jeff Ivers had a relationship that felt real and that she considers real to this day. In interviews and in Excavation, she explores both her awful victimization by Ivers and the agency she sometimes experienced when she was with him.
I found Excavation, a story of a teenage girl locked in a bitter war with her own self, with a man for whom she had deeply ambivalent feelings, and with an indifferent environment, both compelling and challenging to read.
Nobody rescued Ortiz as a child. And that is terrible.
Also, when I read about Ortiz’s heavy substance abuse when she was a teen, I experience my own moments of alienation. But then I recall that Ortiz’s childhood and her childhood self were all her own, impossible for me to judge, or even to understand. I am lucky to get a glimpse.
And I go back to the essay by William James, to a brilliant passage in which he talks about how human beings fall for war because they basically can’t help but crave extremity: “the sharpness and the precipitousness, the contempt for life, whether one’s own or another’s” …. “the savage ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” “the unconditional duty,” “the conscription,” “the blood-tax,” and “anything that one feels honored by belonging to.”
A Second Memoir
In Hollywood Notebook, Ortiz takes a lyric approach to the years in her early thirties when she refined a sophisticated adult identity, crafted a set of true friends and warm lovers, and got really serious about her work.
It’s not a nonlinear narrative of Ortiz’s losses, as Excavation is. Rather, it’s a welter of elegantly disjunctive prose poems that are about creation, or that perform creation.
For Ortiz, poetry is a life strategy because someone with a poetic sensibility cannot be fixed and cannot be held to who she might have been in the past. In Notebook, Ortiz’s identity shifts as often as her voice modulates: into the interrogative, into the declarative, into complete lists, into incomplete lists, into lyric gorgeousness, into a moment of standup, into an anti-war tirade, into another mood, into packing instructions, into the impressions of a road trip, into sniping against monogamy, into renderings of the future, into a reverie on a wedding, into the end.
Notebook possesses a fragment of a narrative arc, but one that faintly glimmers, an evanescent first half of a rainbow. This arc captures Ortiz’s struggle to return to her unnamed manuscript.
The incomplete work threatens to undo the narrator, to depress her, and to bust her writing chops. She describes herself in the opening pages as a person with “no hunger, but rather a giving up, as if all the tasks are monumentally huge and cannot be undertaken, no matter deadlines, promises or other such nonsense.”
Later, she’s still struggling. “I think of the book in question… It sometimes sits mute and sometimes I hear it mewing at me, wanting attention. Other times, it waits in the shadows of my dreams, wanting to swallow me. Sometimes, I even want to be swallowed.”
These problems are not resolved. Hollywood Notebook does not have an endpoint.
It’s a mosaic that is visual, that has been lived, and that is felt.
When Ortiz was a teenager, she dreamed of accepting the Oscar for cinematography.
Hollywood Notebook is a work of cinematography.
The Dark Blossoming
Musing over the manuscript she feels she has abandoned, Ortiz’s narrator says: “I remember wanting to sleep next to it, to attend to it the way you do a new lover. When someone else entered the space where I wrote it, I wanted to hiss and scratch. To protect its dark blossoming. And now, its pages curl a little, and it waits. And I will return.”
Other times, she speaks in darker, more frightened tones of the self-exposure that lies ahead:
That gummy-mouthed feeling takes hold. It takes hold when I am speaking of something important, deep, the truth that fights to stay inside only I am pushing it out, through my mouth. Scratched vocal chords. Soreness. The speaking through dark clouds. My form becomes dense as wet wool, my words mashed and thickened until they escape my throat and pop into the air. It all takes on a thickness like suffocation, smoke so thick you must yell to be heard. My volume never rises. There is never any fire. Just a perpetual sinking not unlike ocean depths that press against the lungs, as every word unfolds and I speak of something unspeakable, until it hits air.
At other times, still, she seems petrified:
“Go! friends cheer, Do it! and I hear the fear and envy in their voices as they speak into work telephones or type encouragement to me on work computers. If I don’t do this the bitterness will eat me alive. The risk is tremendous. Joblessness. Empty naked days ahead in which to write. Savings drying up into nothing… My boss is like a wonderful mother, and when does that happen, and who turns that down?
Virginia Woolf once communicated to a friend: “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favorite form of reading.” Yet it wasn’t until she was in her late fifties and near the end of her life that Woolf began to write “A Sketch of the Past,” the only work, according to her biographer, Hermione Lee, in which she “began to speak openly about her own sexual history.”
Even then, she wrote “hesitatingly, darkly” with “hiatuses and stoppages.” According to Lee, even in this most open of Woolf’s personal works, “the elusiveness of the self almost becomes the subject.”
Of course, Woolf wrote in another era. Nevertheless, her elusiveness underscores what a gift it is that Ortiz has written so openly about herself.
In fact, Woolf and Ortiz have a lot in common. Both are outspoken, prolific, lifelong writers. Both are interested in the lyric and the narrative. Both are highly social. Both are political. Both express strong negative reactions to war.
Ortiz evokes her powerful opposition to the start of the post-9/11 wars in Hollywood Notebook.
According to Lee, Woolf had a terrible experience of World War I, and some believe that she killed herself in large part because of her horror at the encroachments of World War II.
But, more important even than their opposition to war, to patriarchy, to the status quo, both writers gave birth to works that go to battle by telling the truth.
With her bold books, Ortiz defies society to ignore her, to resist her. But we’re becoming more and more aware of her. Her dark blossoming is changing us.