I moved to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to house-sit for the summer. I drive a borrowed car and have a meager savings. The house is near the Hollywood sign, in the hills, near the Scientologists and the coyotes. Here, I’m supposed to write a book.
I’m so lucky. I’ve never felt more happy or scared. I’m terrified that this will end, that I will fail.
I write looking out over Los Angeles, on a deck with wind chimes that jangle a little too often. When the smog isn’t too thick, I can see from downtown to the ocean, with the sun reflecting off the buildings and a strange orange light behind it all, the ground steaming with dust and exhaust and the heat of millions of people, cars and pets and shit and all the cement sitting in the sun all day. Helicopters buzz nearby, searching for people in K-Town and the south side. This can’t be real. I know I’m here, but it seems wrong. I’m here to write a novel, staring out to where the movies are made. I don’t have to go to work tomorrow. I just need to buy wine at Trader Joe’s and cook dinners at home and try not to go out so much. I just need to write.
What a selfish and self-destructive thing to do: to spend a summer losing money and writing in Hollywood while the world is falling apart around me.
In a few months, barring some sort of miracle, I’ll be 32, unemployed, homeless, and mooching off family or friends for housing until my savings totally dries up, at which point I have no idea what I’ll do. I’ve hated every career I’ve ever had but writing, though writing has rarely managed to pay me.
The other day, while I was working on my novel on the deck, one of my characters said, “If you don’t want the world to break your heart all the time, you either have to trick everyone into thinking you’re dead or spend your life making people afraid of you.”
These are the ways I know to make a living:
Scarecrow: For a time in ‘04, I worked on a campaign in Santa Cruz. We worked in an office with big glass windows, downtown, near the clock tower and a delicious sandwich shop with deviled eggs that were making me fat. There was an email from another campaign, run by an up and coming politico. She’d used her listserv for our opponent. It was stupid of her, and she was in trouble, but I knew if I destroyed her publicly, I’d get a reputation not to be fucked with. I called the man we called “The Godfather of the California Democratic Party.” I was ruthless. “She should never work again.” I didn’t get off the phone for an hour, calling everyone I could think of. My coworker looked at me and shook her head, ashamed. I was really good at that job.
Walking Corpse: The last place I worked was at a museum in San Francisco. I entered data and got yelled at on the phone by people who were mad about ticket prices or about waiting in line or about other things that I could do nothing about. Eventually, I wrote grant reports. One of my bosses, a lovely person, kept saying, “Find a new job. You can do better than this.” She was fired for no apparent good reason, as were lots of my friends. We stayed afraid. I barely made enough money to survive. As long as I kept my head down and was okay with them paying me nothing for taking a constant stream of abuse, I could live forever without any real responsibility, biking to work through a beautiful park.
I think that these are the ways many of us know to make a living.
The other day, I was walking back from the market through the hills, thinking about my novel, and I saw a dog come out from behind a giant mound of dirt that had collapsed off the side of a hill. I looked at it and smiled and said, “Hi puppy,” but then looked again, and noticed mange, and a lack of a collar, and it’s size, and I realized it was in fact a coyote and I should probably get a new prescription for my glasses. I was carrying cheese. It was the largest coyote I’d ever seen. I walked slowly away from it. It followed me.
I walked faster, I walked slower, I walked at a medium pace. I knew running was the worst thing I could do. It started about thirty feet behind me, but no matter how quickly I walked, it walked just a bit faster than me, so it was gaining a couple feet every ten or twenty seconds. I know a full-grown man can take a coyote, and I knew I’d win if it attacked, but is it really winning if you don’t have insurance and you have to get rabies shots? I was getting closer to the house. It was getting closer to me. I rounded the last curve. I had about a hundred feet to go. It was maybe ten feet away. I put my head down and walked more quickly. I turned my head, ready to roar if I needed to, like I’d been trained to if I ever saw a mountain lion, or maybe, more honestly, ready to give it my cheese. The coyote was gone. I looked all around me. I locked the front door behind me and poured myself a glass of water. I haven’t seen it since. “The universe is trying to tell you something,” a few friends told me, when I got on the phone to tell them the story.
Lately, I’ve become an unwilling hippie. I love punk rock. Anything tie-dye makes me want to puke, and every time I hear Pink Floyd I fly into a violent rage. But a few months ago, I screwed up my back. Where physical therapy and medication failed, acupuncture and yoga fixed everything. I got panic attacks and took Xanax and Ativan. The medication did nothing. Meditation and vitamins cured me. So when I was told the universe was trying to tell me something, I rolled my eyes and went on Google to research the spiritual meaning of coyotes.
A coyote is a trickster. A few days earlier I’d seen a book on a shelf in the house called Trickster Makes The World by Lewis Hyde. I read it.
A trickster lives somewhere outside the hunter and the hunted. A trickster—to get all philosophical on you—is the one who pushes through from one dialectic to the next. The one who figures out how to build a fishnet instead of stabbing at salmon with a spear. The one who can blend but can’t really fit in and who can go in disguises and fuck with people. She’s also the one who often gets caught in her own traps (though, in most of mythology, the trickster is almost always a he, but I hereby declare this should no longer be the case.)
The trickster would say it’s time to move on from this shit. The trickster would say the only way to exist honestly, to do what one needs to do to be a writer, is to convince the world to feed me while I work, to confuse the maddening choices it tries to force me to make. I have no idea how I will do this, but I know that I will.
So here I sit, in writer heaven, blown away by the kindness of my friends, in my awesome borrowed house, staring off at this alien borrowed city, grateful for my awesome borrowed car, trying to force myself to be naïve enough to write this novel, to accept the gifts my friends and mentors have given me despite the fact that the world feels like it’s falling apart around me. I am going to sit in this house and write a book that no one may ever read, because maybe one person might read it, because writing it makes me happy. And if I’m happy, I’m less likely to fuck people over or to pretend I’m dead. If I starve, I starve. If people call me naïve, I will take it as a compliment.
Because being willfully naïve is the only way forward. The only way to live is to let everything break my heart over and over and over again—not only my heart but also maybe my stomach and my mind and really my belief in the kindness of others—and then to get up again the next day and continue to be naïve. Being a writer is to continue to have faith in people despite the world giving me millions of reasons to think otherwise, even if that means knowing the world will keep trying to destroy my naïveté and, by extension, me, over and over and over again.
Photo Credit for photos 1, 2 and 4: Patrick Sean O’Neil