Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?

We left Portland three weeks ago today. Our friends, Miles and Amy, had been gracious enough to open their home, hearts, and liquor cabinet to Paige and I, and we spent the last week engaging in as many “Oregon” activities as we could. Restaurants we hadn’t tried, trails we’d put off hiking. We finally got around to trying craft cocktails at new (and old) hipster bars we’d never set foot it in. We made the rounds with our border collie, Jackson, letting him say his goodbyes to his furry friends and the street lights and sign posts he’d left his mark on. Paige put her toes in the foam of the Pacific while I took her picture and she took mine while we filled inner tubes on the banks of the Clackamas river. There were going away parties and BBQs, concerts on the sprawling lawn of Portland’s backyard, and goodbyes. 

Too many goodbyes. 

And then it was time to go. What we couldn't fit in the moving truck, or deemed too vital to our lives (everything from birth certificates to signed books), we shoved into the back of our car, coaxed Jackson in with a month's worth of MilkBones and started out, careful not to spend too much time looking in the rearview. The first day we listened to a good chunk of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, barely looked out the window at the state of Idaho, and ended up at a Best Western on the Utah/Wyoming border. Behind the hotel was a manicured park where Jackson saw his first school of Koi fish swimming in a clear pond and promptly looked at me as if I'd been depriving him his whole life. The first (and probably the greatest) surprise of this stop was that the town had an In-N-Out Burger. Oh, how that neon sign gleamed like the waters of an oasis. It took some effort to stop eating when shredded wrapping paper was all that remained.

Day two brought the expansive beauty of Wyoming, the "Wild West" I'd always pictured in my mind, followed by the mind-eroding traffic of the greater Denver metropolitan area. In a flash of stupidity, I decided I could keep driving, put another hundred miles in our rearview, and we ended up in a small Eastern Coloradan town where the locals stop their conversations when you enter the room, like a priest pushing through swinging saloon doors, where hastily typed "Boil Water Due to Contamination" notices are posted on the windows of the only businesses within fifty miles, and where insects—fellow travelers themselves I assumed by the town's minuscule population—crawl through the massive crack in the door frame, seeking shelter and sustenance in the same lodgings you and your family have. 

Flynn's novel came to an end just as we rolled into Tulsa on the third day. We'd burned though most of Kansas and Oklahoma, on a few hours a fitful sleep from the night before, and pulled into another hotel parking lot. To make up for the previous evening, I secured a room with air conditioning, a jacuzzi tub, and a reliable pizza delivery service. We gorged ourselves, had a drink or two, then crashed hard while a marathon of home remodeling reality shows flickered on the TV. In the morning, we left the city along with the ice cream we’d been pining for, forgotten in the hotel room’s tiny refrigerator. 

Texas was exactly as I’d hoped, small towns with burger joints, populations hovering in triple digits, and tremendous amounts of love for their high school football teams. Even as we blew through each burg, the highway doubling as Main Street in most, we saw the blue and red and green banners hanging in store windows and down from old-fashioned lampposts. License plates and rear windows smeared with shoe polish, showcasing jersey numbers and crudely drawn renderings of mascots. Life appeared to be simpler, more focused, and just as I began to think that might the sort of lifestyle I’d been looking for all along, we crossed a line—from one state to another, from a county to a parish. We found ourselves in the dense green of Northern Louisiana. 

Jackson, relatively comatose in the backseat for most of the trip, began to perk up, pacing back and forth between the windows sniffing at the thick, humid air. It was as if he knew the journey was almost over, that we’d soon be in the next place he would call home. Little did he know: the three of us still had a few nights of hotel life ahead of us. Without a book for us to listen to, we flipped on the radio, trying, as we closed the gap between us and Lafayette, to program in new stations into the preset keys. We found a multitude of great rap and jazz stations, with decent classic rock sounds sandwiched somewhere in there, and the DJs spoke of cities we’ve never heard of and festivals we’d never been to. They talked football and shrimp. These were the voices, the instructions, of our new home.

The sun was reduced to a sliver when we pulled off the highway. The haze burned on the horizon, deep reds and oranges like the high octane swirl of color in frozen daiquiri machines. We booked a room, decompressed for a few minutes, then took a tour of our new city. Lafayette. Colorful beads hung in the trees around campus. Billboards and banners advertised upcoming music and food festivals. The fleur-de-lis was everywhere, etched into the skin of the city. Nearing nine, ten in the evening, the temperature was still in the B+ range. We’d entered a whole new world. And I felt, above the anxiety of change, simply electric with possibility. This was a place of culture, of heart. And I now called it home.

The first few days were a blur of carpet replacement, parking permits, get-togethers with other new students, school orientation, grocery shopping with Mom and Dad (without whom none of this would have been possible), getting lost in the car and on foot, more school orientation, sweating while standing still, unpacking and the discovery of what had been broken in the move, dinner with old friends and new, office and classroom assignments (after still more orientation), and the thrill of a real thunderstorm. Then suddenly, there I was, babbling in front of twenty-five freshman students, telling them I would be teaching them how to write college-level essays. It felt as though I’d just been on the Clackamas river, somewhere between Barton and Carver parks, ropes tied between my tube and Paige’s, between mine and the floating cooler, between us and the world we knew. Then, I blinked. Just a fraction of a second and I was here, telling a room full of strangers to call me Mr. Attana. Or Mr. Drew. 

Just Drew, if they liked.

I really have no idea what to expect. There is no way to tell what I’ve gotten myself into—on a teacher, student, and social level—, but I feel so blessed to be a part of this program, and a part of this thriving culture. Leaving behind our lives in Portland, the wealth of friendship and memories, has been more difficult than we could have imagined. Much harder than we pictured when I received word that I was accepted, back when a new life was only a theory. When we were doing Google searches about alligators and Cajun county. When we were deciding what we should take with us, and what we should leave. Back when we were making our friends promise they’d come to visit, and assuring them, in turn, that we wouldn’t be gone forever. It felt like a dream, something intangible, always on the horizon. In the future.

Now that it’s here and our little family unit has boots (or paws) on the ground, the ethereal, pixelated images of the fourth largest city in the State of Louisiana, have begun to sharpen. This is all real now. There are alligators here, though they aren’t waiting on the new carpet in our apartment when we get home. The humidity is rough, unlike anything we’d ever experienced on the West Coast, but the air conditioning works just fine most places. And hey, a second shower never hurt anyone. Standing in front of a classroom of freshman really is just as terrifying as I pictured it would be, but what I hadn’t factored into those fever dreams, was the support of my new classmates and colleagues. We truly are in this together.

And what has lessened the severity of this entire transition, the reality of what our family has undertaken, is the warmth of not only the friends we’ve made—folks from here, and from across the farther reaches of the country—but of the city of Lafayette. Everyone here is smiling. They’re sweating, but smiling. New friends and strangers alike seem like they want us to be here, to find the beauty that they have. They’ve made us feel welcome, a part of. 

At home.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sweets to the Sweet.

I know, I know. I keep saying that I'll come back more often, I'll post more, I'll keep whoever is happening upon my website or blog abreast on the current state of my life. Of my career. But I haven't. My most recent post was the last day of February. I aim to rectify that. Let's check the pedals and get up to speed. Today, let's talk school.

To my credit, I have been busy. For a good chunk of the last few months, I have been engaged in the application process for the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This was a battlefield of deadlines, essays, and lost transcripts, but with the help of those on staff in LA, and the support of my friends and family at home, I got the letter. Well, I received a phone call first, telling me I'd been accepted, but I don't think I fully let myself celebrate until the letter came in the mail. Official Letterhead and all. And riding shotgun with the letter was the terrifying notion of leaving this city behind. Portland, the place I call home. 

I came to this city almost a decade ago, with little more than a backpack full of cigarettes and paint pens. And the youthful lust that urges a twenty-year-old boy to leave everything in Southern California behind after a chance encounter. That tryst lasted, as you can assume, the appropriate three week period and I was left, by myself, in the City of Roses. I've lived in every neighborhood, drank in every bar. I've lost almost as many friends as I've made. This city helped me find the love of my life. Paige, my partner, a woman without whom I would never be the man I am today. And here I discovered who I want to be. Not the guy I pretended to be, not the badass I thought I was, but who I am. I'm a writer. 

We've got two months. Eight weeks to figure out the move, to pack our books and spatulas. To fill out change of address cards and say our goodbyes. But I'm not ready. Not yet. We've got the summer to hash out the details. And to spend as much time as we can on the river, around the bbq, at the old haunts. And I plan to savor every last second.

So, where does that leave me right now? Well, the clock is creeping up on 10am and my dog is stretched out on the hardwood like a rug, panting. Candyman, the criminally underrated horror masterpiece, is chugging and burning on the TV just beyond the glow of my laptop. Paige is plugging away at her work in the other room, finishing her last week of undergrad. And I couldn't be more proud. In a little more than a week, I'll lose myself in the clapping, the cheering, the shimmer and sway of her gown and she walks across the stage and receives her degree. 

And then we are off, off to the land of crawfish and glittery beads. To Southern hospitality and thunderstorms. To make new friends, and to encourage the old ones to visit. I cannot wait to see what life will bring next.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Don't call it a comeback.

Months of radio silence. Though, it hasn't been because I am opposed to updating this blog. No, I've been busy finishing the novel. I haven't been doing much else besides the continual polishing and shaping of what is now known as, FLAT BLACK. But now that the manuscript is finished, I'll be back on here.

For the foreseeable future, I will be posting about my experiences with finding an agent, including query letters, novel excerpts, etc. The whole nine. I want a record of this process, because I'd like to look back at all this, no matter the outcome, with fondness. And maybe the occasional grimace.

Here's my new goal: I hope to receive 100 rejection letters from literary agents by April 1st. I just got my first—a short, kind "no, thank you"—which I aim to print, frame, and hang next to my desk. I'm looking forward to the coming months, and hope that anyone reading will enjoy following along with me as I navigate the treacherous terrain of the publishing world.

Also, watch True Detective. That's all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Red Flags of Elodie Lane.

Since my folks moved to the Florida panhandle four years ago, my mother walks to the end of the driveway every weekday morning at eleven to get the mail. After their respective retirements, the hustle and structure of their previous lives has been replaced with the shifting white sand of the gulf coast. Besides bible studies and doctors' appointments, the only constant, really, has been the mail. In their little town, you could set your watch by it.
Gulf Breeze is a small suburb of Pensacola with a population of just over five thousand. People know most of their neighbors. They know the high school kid bagging their groceries. They wave to the sheriff as he cruises the boardwalk. They know their postal driver's name. On Elodie Lane, the woman who always came bumping around the corner every morning, the back of her white, boxy truck filled with bundles of magazines and credit car pre-approval packets and pizza coupons, was Carol. In their neighborhood, the one thing that changed the most, my mother said, was the style of Carol’s hair.
Three weeks ago, my mother pulled into the driveway a little before noon and walked down to the grab the mail. The box was empty. She saw that the other mailboxes on the street still had their red flags waving. Carol must have been running late. She began running through scenarios as she went back up the drive: engine trouble with her mail truck or a late delivery at the distribution center in Pensacola. Or worse, trouble at home. A fight with a boyfriend or husband. My mother knew Carol enough for the pleasantries if they happened to be at the mailbox simultaneously, but it was my father who talked with her more often. He was always outside waxing the car or mowing the lawn and he would undoubtedly hold up her route as they conversed. Maybe he’d have some insight about her delay. She planned to ask him when he returned home. 
As she closed the garage, the sound of a siren crawled under the door and echoed off the posters of cars and vintage aircraft my father had mounted all over the walls. A fire station is within earshot of their house, so sirens weren’t unusual, but for a moment she had a feeling this particular call had some knowledge of her husband. He was, after all, getting older and this was something she had to consider. But it couldn’t have been for him. He was at the VA hospital anyway, he’d taken the scooter up to see the doctor about his gall bladder. So, if there was a problem, he'd be in good hands. There was no reason to think the worst. She let go of the feeling while she changed into a swimsuit. When he got back from his appointment, they were going to the beach to look for seashells. But my father, like the mail, was late that day.
And then the phone rang. A young male voice asked if her husband was Bruce, and when she confirmed this, he informed my mother that my father been admitted to the emergency room with serious injuries. The clerk had no further knowledge other than my father was alive, the stability of his condition was unknown. She was backing down the driveway again in a matter of seconds.
As she turned onto Midway, the main street out of the housing development, she saw yellow tape crisscrossing the next intersection. A line of waiting cars and a firetruck blocked the view of whatever lay beyond the tape. My mother pulled over, tires against the curb, and got out. She left the motor running. 
When she ducked beneath the yellow tape and came around the side of the firetruck, she saw three things at once. Like a simple formula. (A) = Late model Suzuki Scooter, or what was left of it. My folks used this hog for solo trips to the beach or to buy milk at the Publix a mile away. (B) = Ford box truck swathed with flaking red, white and blue, pulled at an angle on the sidewalk. The sliding side door stood agape. A plastic bin was overturned, its contents strewn out onto the asphalt. A few envelopes lay in the grass nearby. (C) = A man in Post Office blues sitting on the curb, arms wrapped tightly around his legs, face burrowed between his knees. His body hitched with sobs. 
(A) + (B) + (C) = the red flags of Elodie Lane.
“Did you hit my husband?” my mother asked. 
Her voice must have broke him free of the spiraling train of thought, because he jerked his head back like someone had a handful of his hair, and he squinted against the sun for a moment, straining to make out her face, before he could respond. And when he did, he made no excuses or justifications. He didn’t blame the blind spot of the sun or the brakes of the Ford. He said simply, “Yes, ma’am. I did.”
My mother took this is, and absorbing it she looked around at the scene again. From (A) to (B), then back to (C). The sheriff’s deputies had left their notepads and conversation on the hood of the cruiser and had turned in her direction. They made no attempt to block her from the area, to push her back beyond the yellow tape. It was as if they knew.
There were a hundred questions in her head, begging her to scream at the folded man, but she quelled them and asked, “Did you kill him?”
“No, ma’am. I don’t believe I did,” the man said and dropped face face between his knees again.
She turned from him and got back into the car, the same Kia my father had spent the morning cleaning while she was at bible study, and drove to the hospital. 

When I was five, my father was in his first motorcycle accident. He was barreling down the highway with Los Angeles in the rearview. He was heading home. Something caught his eye from the side of the road, a reflected light or maybe a broken down car on the shoulder and he turned his head to look for a only a second. When he refocused on the fast lane ahead of him, a car was at a complete stop in front of him. He didn’t even have time to grip the brake or let go of the throttle. Investigators judged that he hit the back of the stalled car at roughly 80mph and was airborne for roughly eight car lengths. He broke his arms and his legs, his ribcage and collapsed both lungs. He spent months in a full body cast and I spent that time next to his bed, drawing on his cast with magic markers.
Twenty-one years before I was born, my father spent a year in Southeast Vietnam. He was a door gunner on a Huey, with the burn mark on his neck as a reminder. During that year, he was assigned to three different birds. The first two were shot down. In each, my father was the only survivor. 
Today, my father is back home on Elodie Lane. His foot is broken in three places and his pelvis in three. He has bruised kidneys and a significant stitches on his scalp. His left shoulder remains separated, hanging on by tendons and ligaments. Fading road rash covers most of his body like a tattoo. In his words, “As the test results clearly show, the unprotected human body is no match for the Ford built U.S. mail delivery vehicle.”
But he has, once again, survived. My folks attribute this to God’s love and protection. His continual survival truly is a miracle. Someone or something is looking after my father, and if it really is the hand of the divine holding on with a tight grip, then right now, I’m thanking God for protecting him.
I still have no idea if there is a creator, and I’m not sure I ever will. I went to bible study while growing up and I thought of myself as a Christian, but it didn’t stick. I came back to the church when I hit bottom on my own and tried again. I still can’t say I believe in God above, but after my mother found the empty mailbox, I was absolutely certain about the one thing: the faith I have in my father. In his courage and in his strength. His love.
He is a man that, no matter what happens, I will never stop believing in.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Repost: Retweeting Hawthorne (Blog Post from Spilt Infinitive)

Repost from Spilt Infinitive.

Retweeting Hawthorne

HashtagThree years. Four drafts. Enough revision that I could feasibly switch the suffix of the word from re- to de-. I’ve lived and breathed the same story before and after work, during the course of an MFA program, and through the tumult and pleasure of getting married. Yet, I still can’t see the finish line. But something’s been running through the back of my mind, a notion that’s been powering me through nearly as much as the desire to write itself: with enough of myself poured out onto the keyboard, my novel will undoubtedly be on the shelves within my parents’ lifetime. And glean me all the adoration I’ve ever dreamt of.
It just has to, right?
Wrong. Unless you’re one of the select few who’ve found the path to publishing as easy as emptying your trash folder (and I’ll refrain from namedropping because, let’s face it, our jealously of their barometric rise knows exactly zero bounds), then completing your book is only half the battle. Getting published isn’t about hard work anymore or the near fictionalized, serendipitous moment when your heavy childhood memoir or zombie love story lands on the desk of some hapless intern reader at Penguin who just happened to get laid the night before and felt generous enough to send it upstairs. No, these days, the world of success and publication starts with your name. More specifically, it’s about your online brand.
A fellow writer opined that the propulsion of your literary career is based on the italics, what your name carries around like the frilly streamers on a girl’s bike. Ex:
“Sweet, Brainy Short Story,” Published in Prairie Schooner, Nov. 2011
“Equally Enthralling Literary Think Piece,” Published in Tin House, Jan, 2012
“Clinically Detached Personal Essay,” Published in Crazy Horse, May. 2013
Agents and readers take note. This writer has got some impressive notches under his belt, based mostly on the quality of his writing. With these credits, he may deserve a second look. Now, tack these on:
 Regular Contributor / Blogger at Gawker, TheMillions, ESPN
2,147 Twitter Followers
1,793 Blog Subscribers
This burgeoning new novelist has gone from a noteworthy literary voice to a sellable literary voice. The followers of this author’s many cyber handles already supply a potentially multi-thousand strong fan base that could not only buy the debut novel, but promote, tweet and tumble every word of the prose. And let’s not forget the benefit of a reliable Instagram account where a well placed semi-colon could be photographed, slapped with an artsy filter then shared, liked and hash tagged until well after the first pressing sells out.
The emergence of this pseudo-cyber self-promotion is of course recent, a healthy twenty years after this new pixelated reality, but the reliance on such viral hype has become paramount. A strong, collated SEO (Search Engine Optimization, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Google) carries more weight than a state driver’s license. The successful writers are doing it. The less successful writers are doing it. Gone are the days of writing on parchment next to candlelight and having that be enough (but while we are on the subject, imagine if Hawthorne had a Twitter: @NattyIceHawthorne “Check out this sweet sentence I’m working on: ‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude…’ #thescarletletter  #page20). Readers aren’t satisfied only with what you create; they want a glimpse of who you are. But what does this mean for all of us introverted misanthropic literary types who refuse to let even our significant others read the paragraph we labored over for a week? It means that as the times change, so must we. There’s only one Cormac McCarthy allowed per generation to deactivate his Facebook account and stay off the grid.
When Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero hit the shelves in 1985, it spoke to a generation: the zombiefied consumer culture of the cellphone-less 1980s. But that book hasn’t been forgotten today, and not because it’s been hailed as a classic of American Literature and taught in high school classrooms across the country, but because Ellis has kept himself in the shiny glow of every young American’s laptop screen. Sure, not every tweet has to do with his writing (though he does keep fans updated on the status of his current project), and he’s continually in the headlines for his brash, offensive statements (one tweet of his compared watching the show “Glee” to stepping in a puddle of HIV) but his online persona, his SEO, is unparalleled.
Ellis’ image is as controversial as those he creates in his fictions. More importantly, he is talked about. Any insider would be hard-pressed to deny that the clamoring of the many activist groups outraged over the content of Ellis’ work hasn’t contributed to his sales. Today, American Psycho has gotten dangerously close to sixty pressings. Sure, the grotesque thematic content has something to do with that, but I would contend that the nearly half-million Twitter followers Ellis currently has plays a large part in his continued relevance. His last book, 2010’s Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to his debut, wasn’t met with the same success as its predecessor, nor the few books he has published since the MTV decade, but he’ll still have a bevy of buyers for his next tale. Why? Because he’s still got the world talking, and the more people talk (retweet), the longer his name is remembered. In turn, Ellis’ work stays in print. And the line grows for his next release.
I’m not advocating we go out and put hashtags around a hundred and forty character slur in an attempt to get the internet repeating our names like a mantra, but I am suggesting that if any of us, however deeply introverted we claim to be, want to draw attention to the writing we’ve spent years obsessing over, then we have to start working this online angle, and doing so much louder than the blog, Tumblr or Twitter that’s waiting just one track pad click away.
An instructor of mine, Frank Gaspar, once offered this advice: “Touch it everyday,” the “it” referring to the project you are currently consumed by. Be it a new chapter, some 500 words, or merely moving a comma around the landscape of the page, the idea is to keep your brain and fingers engaged in the work, a sort of holistic immersion. This advice got me though a few rough patches (and by patches, I mean nuclear fallouts) where all I could do was move a comma. But I contend Frank’s sound advice should be expanded to include all the rivers and valleys of your online persona. When those nagging questions that fill the disquiet before falling asleep arise—Did I write today? Did I move that comma? Did I cut that hack sentence I’ve grown so attached to?—consider adding a few more: Did I tweet today? Did I post a blog? Did I share the links on my Facebook? Am I getting my name out there?
Now that I’ve gone on about the importance of the internet, I have a confession: As of today, I have a mere 35 Twitter followers and this right here is the first blog post I’ve written outside of the ramblings I sporadically post on my personal blog. So, whatever advice might be gleaned from this post should be followed first by its author.

Website: drewattana.com

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Scrapped Novel Title: "Does This Rag Smell Like Chloroform?"

Yesterday morning, bleary eyed from the night before, I took a long walk. I do most of my best thinking walking around the neighborhood, headphones in, cigarette lit. I sometimes come up with character names from cross-streets and childhood histories from the weathered plastic jungle gyms in the backyard. Conversations heard from patios and bus stops often give me fuel for possible plot devices and dialogue. Graffiti provides relevance to this world. And for some reason, I never think to bring a journal, so I'm always feverishly typing these notes into the notepad of my iPhone. But the thing is, yesterday's notes were filled with horrible, horrible ideas.

Here are a few of those ideas:

1. After snapping a photo of a soiled, beaten teddy bear lying on the porch of an even more soiled and beaten home in deep SE Portland, a notion came to mind. I should write a young adult novel about a, wait for it, TEDDY BEAR who makes his living as a hit-man. But hold on, he's got back story—Charlie (yeah, that was the name I also came up with) is a recovering addict who botched his last hit without his snow, and is both on the run from his employers and his own demons. Bestseller?

2. I also came up with a title for another novel, not the content, characters nor the plot, just the title. And for some time, I was sure that title was the best thing I'd ever come up with. This was, until my wife just shook her head at me and repeated the title slowly back to me. "Does This Rag Smell Like Chloroform?"

3. For a good ten minutes, I convinced myself I should write romance novels. Enough said.

What did I glean from these amazing ideas? I should be spending more time in front of my keyboard, banging away at my current projects. So here's to following through (::raises coffee mug to laptop screen::), and getting the work done.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Road Ahead.

This whole "readjusting to normal life following a ten day residency which represented the culmination of a two year MFA program" thing is tougher than I thought. More than simply drying out from the copious celebratory drinks, it's all on me now. I'm without a faculty member approved reading list, free from weekly reading commentaries and annotations. I've got zero deadlines. I have no one to answer to except myself.

I am an eternal student who has suddenly found himself without mandatory homework. Bitchin', right? No way.

This writing thing is all me now. Getting pages written and revised, books read and studied, and meeting deadlines is solely my responsibility. That whole structured support system (sans those wonderful friends and colleagues I have been blessed with--they're coming with me) is in my rear view. And of course: I'm terrified.

But I'm willing to do the work. I'm in this for the long haul.