Thursday, December 1, 2011

Zen and the Art of Squandered Opportunities

A couple of hours ago, I emailed the director I’d been working with at The Moth and withdrew from the performance. I’d wrestled with the decision most of the day, really wondered if I would regret it, and knew that I couldn’t be certain how I’d feel until I hit send. So, okay, the verdict is in and, you know, I feel pretty okay about it. I’m a teensy bit sad that I won’t be taking the stage at the Paramount next Tuesday night, which had been the plan. But in the end, I think this was the right decision.

So what happened? Well let me preface by saying I love listening to The Moth. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an NPR distributed program that comes out of NYC. Folks tell amazing stories from their lives and I’ve heard more than a few that have stopped me in my tracks or inspired a busted gut. So when I got the interview call to see if I’d be right for the live show, I was pant-peeingly excited. I also told myself not to have expectations, that they were probably interviewing lots of people, and that only two folks in Austin would be picked.

I talked up a storm to the director who at one point stopped me and asked me to give her more details about something I mentioned in passing. “I can tell you that,” I said, “But really it’s nothing I want to perform in public or potentially have on the radio.”

Those were the magic words. I think we both thought the same thing when we heard me say that, “Okay, this is the story,” though I had some reservations. The story was about how after a seven-year estrangement my sister and I are mending fences. I worried if she heard it that process would end. So I called her to check in and she said to me basically the same thing that I said to the director, “Nobody in our family listens to NPR so go for it.”
I was really grateful to my sister for this attitude, since for me to tell the whole story would be to expose some parts of her she might not appreciate. (And yes, this did make me wonder about myself and if I am a little too willing to sell out people when a microphone is dangled in front of me.)

So the deal was done, the process begun. The director said to me that we’d be talking on the phone several times, and that a lot of people she works with are surprised when they find out how much time it takes. I took that as a warning and made some adjustments—cleared the decks, set aside the book I’m writing, didn’t schedule many appointments. I wanted to fully focus on the task at hand.

At first it seemed to go well. I was asked for a written draft and when I turned it in I got feedback that went like this, “THIS IS GREAT!!” And then, despite the greatness, I was asked to make changes. Lots of them. That was not terribly surprising. The Moth has a very set format – any big programs or print publications do. I’ve written enough for the New York Times (not that much, just enough) to know when you start working with national folks, you are going to have to bend to their will or you are going to get cut.

A pattern established itself. I’d hear the requested changes, maybe wince a little bit, but agree to make them. I’d then make them. I’d get a call and an email saying GREAT JOB!!! absolutely riddled with exclam points. But then there’d be more changes requested. I’m just going to give one example here, because in the end it’s the one that annoyed me the most. At one point in the story, I talk about how difficult it was growing up with my dad who was a Holy Roller and a racist. I wrote in an early draft that he used to tell us that if we left our small town, we’d be raped, tortured and killed by a black man. I also wrote that he didn’t actually use the term black man.

I thought that it was pretty clear that I meant he used a racist term. But the director said I needed to cut the line or clarify. So I rewrote it and changed the word to my father’s actual terminology—nigger. I did not feel good typing it then. I do not feel good typing it now. And I knew, as I included it that, saying that word could be a showstopper in a bad way. But how else to clarify?

After I’d done more drafts than I can remember (a dozen perhaps?), and around three weeks into the process, the director said it was time to have A Fresh Listener weigh in. This involved a conference call where I was supposed to “just talk it through.” By this point, I was having nightmares about the whole thing. I don’t usually perform without pages in front of me—I’m a writer/reader, not an actor— so there was the fear I’d go blank. But also there was the fear that in my head all the drafts would get mangled and I’d wind up blurting a hybrid that made no sense at all.

So for the Fresh Listener, I kind of read from the page, but also tried to look away from the page and just tell the story. I could tell it was a wooden delivery. I am totally perplexed by the concept of rehearsed spontaneity/ pre-written extemporaneous. When I finished, the Fresh Listener was asked to weigh in with her thoughts. She immediately zoomed in on the word nigger and gave me a speech about how and why it doesn’t work and that cunt is the other word that doesn’t work. I kept trying to cut in to say I knew that, but she wouldn’t let me cut in. By the end of her speech, which she probably didn’t intend to be condescending but which sure sounded like that to me, I knew that she was from Alabama, that her family uses the word nigger, and that this embarrasses her in front of her Jewish husband. Not that this had anything to do with my story, but she wanted me to hear HER story. FINALLY when it was my turn to speak, I explained that I never wanted to say nigger in the first place, that there was no need to sell me on the idea of cutting it out, and that I only put it in because that’s what I thought the director meant when she asked me to clarify. (Not to mention that the director did not herself, after seeing the word, ask me to cut it out, which in hindsight seems kind of weird.)

For her part during the call, the director—who just hours before had written to heap high praise on the draft— made a few comments like, “You have to understand that sometimes things that really read well on the page just don’t work out loud.” Really? Like I didn’t know this? What upset me was that this was the same person who’d given me all the revision requests that got me to the draft that didn’t work for the Southern Fresh Listener with the Jewish Husband and the Racist Family.

And then I got another round of revision requests. At this point, I was becoming very vocal in my discomfort to my closest friends. I didn’t want to give up this BIG CHANCE but it felt like the life had been sucked out of my story. I felt like I’d been to Oz and had an unfortunate glimpse of the man behind the curtain. I wanted Cher to come over and sing a song about how if we could turn back time I could just go back to listening to the show and not know the process of how they Moth-ify people and that would be just fine with me.

Seriously, people, I thought about all of this WAY too much and WAY too hard. I mean, talk about your First World Problem with a capital FWP. I’m having a breakdown over the fact that my ego agreed to do a show so I could hear a bunch of people clap for me and so that later I could have bragging rights? Really? And then, oh I didn’t do it, did I? Oh shit, I DID— I started to drift into the dangerous Seas of What If— as in What If This Moth Gig Leads to Bigger Things and Changes My Life and Makes it BETTER!!?

WHAT bigger things? That’s what I finally had to ask myself. I don’t want bigger things. I’m 47, almost 48. My grandmother lived to be 94 so if I follow that pattern, I am, as of right now, halfway finished. Not having a national spotlight the first half of my life didn’t only not harm me, I’m pretty sure it was a good thing.

Wait, see the above paragraph? A bit defensive, no? See that’s still MORE of the stuff that was running through my head. Jesus H—this little ten-minute performance had taken over my life. I decided they call it The Moth because it eats holes in you. I dedicated close to 20 hours to the thing before I finally sent in that email and quit. Twenty hours I’ll never get back. Twenty hours and my paycheck was going to be $200. Plus tickets were $50 to $90 and I was only allowed one comp. Several of my friends wrote to say they were sorry but they couldn’t afford to attend. I wrote back to say that for $90 (or less) I would come over, do a private reading of the piece AND have sex with their dog. (That offer still holds for any of you who want to pony up $90.)

Somewhere in here I need to thank Garreth, the world’s best realtor, for stepping in when Warren cleverly failed to answer his phone. Garreth listened to me lay it all out there, and really think it through. I told him that, though it might be narcissistic of me, I was feeling a bit bad, like I was leaving them in a lurch on very short notice. He helped me to calmly see that I was in a lurch of my own, without a final draft to focus on, which left me with no time to adequately rehearse.

Another friend of mine, an actor/director, talked me through it, too. He said he turns down roles to act in other shows just because he prefers to be in shows he directs, to have it his way. So maybe I’m a control freak, but man that resonated with me. I like the Dick Monologues. I like just getting up there and being chill and doing it my way. I detest writing by committee—and there’s a difference between incorporating thoughtful edits and just rolling over and letting others dictate how it’s going to be and with each new revision I felt like my story was disappearing entirely.

I’m no Melville, but I’ve been amusing myself imagining how it would be for him if he lived today and turned in a manuscript. These days the whole world of writing (and so many other things) is so geared toward homogenization, marketing, branding, and pleasing the masses that no manuscript escapes unscathed. “Uh, Mr. Melville? This manuscript, it’s GREAT!!! Super!!! Really, all we need is for you to change that whale to a hamster, tighten the whole thing down to 250 pages, and come up with a sub-plot that we can parlay into a blog and you’ve got yourself a deal!!”

Two more quick thoughts. This whole thing reminded me of watching the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Spoiler alert: in the end, Tweedy and the boys turn in a carefully crafted record to a very disappointed label exec. The record gets rejected. They turn around and sell it to another label. Bonus: The second label was owned by the first label. Double bonus: The record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, landed on just about everybody’s Best Record of the Year list that year.

Really, it’s so hard to know when to stick to your guns and when to give in. I tried really hard to give in, but I reached the point where I just couldn’t compromise anymore. After I sent in my withdrawal note, Warren and I went for a walk so he could listen to me process—I was feeling stressed at first, sad about a squandered opportunity. But as we walked along in the gorgeous weather, and I looked at the dogs, and thought about how good my life is, I felt really, really fine. Relieved even.

And then Warren reminded me of my favorite joke: A writer and an editor are the only survivors of a plane crash in the desert. They crawl along for days, dying of thirst, when at last they come upon an oasis. The writer plunges his head in and begins slurping away thirstily. The editor drags himself to his feet, pulls down his zipper, and takes a piss into the water. The writer stops slurping, looks aghast, and croaks out, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” and the editor says, “I’M MAKING IT BETTER.”

I guess we all have to decide in the end what draft works for us. Bummer that the draft I liked won’t be heard by the masses. But I’m pretty sure I’ll survive.

Anyone interested in having me come do a private reading while servicing your dog can email me directly. Also, I was going to be allowed to sell merch, which I paid for upfront, hoping to recoup my money. Now I’m sitting on a bunch of my books over here. So, not that I believe in the holiday or anything, but if any of y’all want to buy my books, you can also Email Me


Lindsay said...

I love The Moth too, and I really hope to go to the show on Tuesday (I found tix for $25 in the balcony). But while I'm disheartened that "stories told live, without notes" are actually vigorously edited, word for racist word, I'm not surprised. I know a Moth storyteller (a non-writer, for their science show) who went on feeling uncomfortable with the story they wanted her to tell. The style was theirs, not hers.

Will you take two dogs?

Garreth said...

Have you ever considered subcontracting the dog sex?

ed carter said...

knowing you as well as I do spike, these guys apparently were unable to listen as well as they talk. critics not writers

maybe they should write their own story and have it critiqued into mediocrity. methinks they were the control freaks with little latitude for our cute provinces

I have a mildly cretinous squirrel nearby however im not sure if you've gone feral yet.
do hope so

let me know xo ed

jason kolker said...

I think The Moths sucks. And Wilco sucks too. Guess that doesn't help much, but I love Spike and think everything she does is great!

Holly said...

It was a truly courageous and admirable move to decline. Most people would have permitted the editorial mugging for a few moments in the spotlight. Bravo for letting a cool head and a happy gut prevail.

P.S. What Lindsay said! Bummer to know they edit the fuck out of the stories. :(

Debi Martin said...

Oh, my Spike. Reading your post reeled me back to the years I experienced "writing by committee" at those well-paying "glossies," which now have inevitably met their demise in the media meltdown since this thing called the internet made content "free." Guess it made "editing" free too, huh? Your story made me grateful that I have turned my back and said "no more" to that lifestyle, that treatment. It's unhealthy. I know well that conversation you had with yourself about maybe that gig would lead to bigger things. Indeed, as I get older I find it easier to just walk away from B.S. I love your writing, Don't stop writing. Your career is not over. I don't see the words "The End" anywhere. You will live a long time and given there's strength in numbers, we the most creative cohort of old farts that ever graced the planet will relate to what you have to say. You are a role model writer and an inspiration.

Patrick Larson said...

If they were really smart they'd take this essay and make you read it instead. At the end of the show.

Janice said...

Thank you for continuing to always be bold. I expect that the process of writing this story you were reluctant to tell was the reason this opportunity was given to you and delivering it to the masses was not. I can't wait to see what new door opens for you because of your integrity.

mindy. said...

I'm seeing The Moth on Tuesday, and I was excited to hear that you would be performing. But what I love about your blog is the honesty and openness that comes across. Any discomfort about the production would certainly come through on stage, and it wouldn't do you justice. To have been invited to appear on The Moth is a huge accomplishment. You made a difficult decision, but the right one for you.

tuber said...

Thank you for sharing this process with us. As frustrating as I'm sure it was to go through all of that and come out on the other side without the appearance, it sure sounds like you made the right decision.

Also, I nearly soiled myself laughing at that writer-editor joke and will promptly be forwarding it to the other staff writers at my workplace. Thank you for that, too!

mucho moss said...

Finding an editor who doesn't pee in the oasis is like trying to discover the perfect grain of sand in the desert.