Posts Tagged 'writing'

Not Making It, In Manhattan and Hanoi

Manhattan. Blackout. Metaphor.

AC, bedspread, feet stretched out in front of me, laptop on my lap just the way it’s supposed to be. Picture in the box in the screen; I smile and he smiles — “It’s good to see you!” we both say and laugh.

The background is the same: the narrow walls of the apartment, canvases stacked against them, the dimness that gathers in the closet and the entrance to the bathroom. But it’s Angelo that looks different — tired, I think, for lack of a better word. “How’s the new job?” I ask.

“It’s cool,” he says with a shrug.

“Really?” I ask, unconvinced.

He rolls his neck and laughs. “No, it fucking sucks. It’s just like ‘move this here’ and ‘move this there’ and I don’t give a shit about expensive perfume or whatever.”

Since the last time we Skyped, Angelo lost his job at that hot-shit gallery where he spent his first full year out of university working as an art handler — drilling shit and hanging shit and packing shit, pulling late nighters and driving semis around Manhattan to do $500,000 installations in million-dollar apartments. “Living the dream,” he’d called it.

It’d been what he’d wanted, what he’d thought he’d wanted, a step in the rung of the ladder of the art world. He’d worked his ass off for it — years of interning while taking full-time classes and working catering gigs and living in his ridiculously rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. He’d been flown to Art Basel Miami, and Art Basel in fucking Basel. He’d met some of his favorite artists and he’d gone to big-deal parties and he’d make connections with gallerists and dealers from around the world.

But secretly I hadn’t been surprised when Angelo had first written saying he’d been laid off. He’d been getting sick of it. He’d said as much the last time we’d talked, when there’d been an opening and he’d worked the door to the VIP lounge. “So, you know, I get to like stand there and be The Man,” he’d laughed. “I’ve got the power, right, of who gets in, and I gotta know the right people and I gotta schmooze and be mad like that.” He’d laughed again. “But it’s also kinda whack. It’s all these people pushing around, trying to be all big and in with this person or that person, and pretending the art is way better than it is. And I’m not even in the real thick of it. I get to play The Man for a couple hours, but the rest of the time I’m just, you know, the grunt. The blue-collar end of it.”

He’d seemed characteristically positive when he’d first written with the news he’d been laid off. He was gonna be getting unemployment, had a few good job leads, was using the extra time to get this website together. Then came an on-call gig doing display installations at Saks in Midtown.

It’s been a month now and he seems worn thin: he fidgets, picks at food wrapper, pushes up his glasses, gets up to get a glass of water then sits back down.

“You alright?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, whatever. I work til like 3am and then I take a cab home to my rich-boy apartment while all the other chollos haul it an hour and a half on the subway, just to turn around and do it again. And it’s like the only kinda job I’m qualified for, other than catering which is a fake job. Like, I spent all this time in school and all ‘I’m gonna be an artist” and all I know how to do is move shit. I just feel like, you know, what the fuck is it all for?”

He looks down, picks at the empty food wrapper then balls it up and tosses it across the room.

I sigh. “Well isn’t that the question of the hour?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about — the what-is-it-all-for, the fallacy of the idea of “making it.” I’ve been in Hanoi six months now; everyone’s started asking me what I’m doing, how long I’m staying, what the plan is now that the Cambodia-book-project thing fell apart. It doesn’t help that my 30th birthday is looming on the horizon, sitting there like a big fat question mark I can’t see over or around or through.

I want to tell Angelo something now, this thing I’ve been thinking, been feeling churn-churning inside me but don’t have words for yet. “It’s a good thing,” is all I come up with.

He raises his eyebrow. “What?”

“That you got out of that world. That shit wasn’t for you.”

He looks dejected.

“Not like that,” I say, still searching for the words. I sigh in exasperation at myself. “I mean, I know it sucks. I’m no fucking role model — I’ve pretty much given up on writing anything for money. But it’s good, I think, to not get sucked into the scene of it all. To question the whole making-it thing.”

I pause. You’re too smart for that art-world bullshit, I want to say, though I don’t actually know if that’s true.

“Check it out,” I say instead. “I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to write this essay about it but it keeps falling apart. Which might be metaphor, I think,” I add with a laugh. “But I’ll send you the link if I can ever get it together.”

“Sweet, sweet,” Angelo says as he cracks open a soda can. It hisses and he yanks the tab off.

“Now tell me about that Sandy shit,” I say.

**

I got the essay together. Kinda. It’s not terribly uplifting. You can read it here.

Three Year Bloggiversary, Two Weeks Late

Party time. Clearly.

The three-year anniversary of this blog snuck up on me. Which really it didn’t; the “domain expiring” warnings kept appearing at the head of every page until, two days before the whole shebang was to be shut down, I finally renewed.

I debated doing some reflective post about what’s happened to me in the three years since I started this thing, when I was about to leave on a trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, my first sola backpacking trip in a few years. I thought about doing some list of things I’ve learned, clips I’ve garnered, other writers I’ve connected with, favorite posts, most popular posts, blahblahblah. But the laziness got the better of me (you noticed how infrequently I’ve been updating as of late?) and I decided to let the anniversary come and go without any fanfare. Cause who really cares anyway?

Then good old Pam Mandel at Nerd’s Eye View wrote me, asking for a pithy quote about travel blogging to be included in her TBEX workshop on creative travel story telling. I was honored but a bit baffled; the folks over at TBEX are doing good things, but their things seem to be on an entirely different end of the spectrum than my things, with different goals and objectives and measurements of success. I frankly didn’t think I had much of value to say to them.

But I gave it a good think, as I cruised around town sucking exhaust and sunlight and other carcinogens. This is what I came up with—far more than the pithy quote requested, but my unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts of travel blogging, gleaned from my three years in the mix.

It was actually quite nice to sit down and get them out. I debated crafting this, or at least even editing it, into a proper post, but again with the laziness. So, a little cut-and-paste action:

I think I’m kinda a strange person to give advice on travel blogging, since I don’t have a terribly successful travel blog. I mean, my stats are decent (I think, I haven’t ever thought to compare them to anyone else’s), but I’ve never made a dime off my blog or gone any press trips. Or even been offered any press trips. Or offered anything besides link swaps and vague “business transactions” that are probably money laundering scams. Nor have I really tried to get those things, so there you go.

My background is in literary writing and I think that’s really shaped my approach to blogging. I think of my blog as an electronic zine. Does anyone remember zines? Collaged, Xeroxed, DIY affairs? I used to make them in high school, sell them at local book stores and record shops or else just directly out of my backpack. Mmore than anything I made zines in order to get my voice out there, in order to be heard—because there was something in me that could not be still (to paraphrase Sylvia Plath), that compelled me to write and publish, and the only means available to do that for a 15-year-old kid in public school was a zine.

I started my blog almost exactly three years ago; non-fiction was a new genre for me and no one was gonna publish my work. Largely because it wasn’t very good yet. But there were still things I wanted to say, conversations I wanted to start or be a part of, questions and insights I wanted to share, so I went back to my DIY roots and started blogging. It’s really not so different for me, just a more expedient, less messy and time-consuming version of what I did as a teenager.

Maybe that’s not encouraging, but blogging has given me a lot of intangible rewards. One, it keeps me writing regularly, even if it’s just a short, funny thing I whip out in less than an hour. Blogging has also shaped the way I travel and even live. It’s kinda like keeping a daily gratitude list; because I’ve been doing it for so long, there’s a part of my brain that’s always on the lookout for something to blog about. Keeping a blog has provided me with a reason to do things I normally wouldn’t, because they’re expensive or hard or weird; for instance, I was able to justify flying to a random town in Southern Italy for a street art festival, where I had one of the funnest weekends of my life and met someone who’s become one of my closest friends. Blogging has also put me in touch with other writers and helped me build a community of like-minded individuals (again, not so different from zine-making).

Perhaps the most gratifying thing, as I move more and more into publishing, is having the space to write exactly what I want to write. I don’t have to worry about editors or marketability or anything on my blog; I can say totally and 100% what I want to say. Strangely, I think that’s where the “success” of my blog comes from, if you can say there is any. I’m convinced that the most important and precious thing a writer has is his or her own voice. The craft can be learned, and should be learned, must be learned—but the thing that makes great writers great (at least the ones I love) is the strength and conviction of their voice. No one wants to hear the same old stuff, the nicey-nice. Or maybe they do, but there isn’t any longevity in that. When I read, I want to feel something. I don’t even necessarily want to agree with the writer; sometimes it’s better when I don’t. But I want to believe them, if that makes sense.

Of course, it can be a trap, self-publishing. It’s easy to fall into a groove where all you get is “wow, that was great” feedback; where you’re not getting any constructive criticism that pushes you further and deeper; where you become mad self-reflexive and exist inside your own little feel-good world. (“There’s a reason people such as Miss Quinn publish in the zine format,” a Letter to the Editor of my first published piece proclaimed. “They lack the talent to do anything else.”) And I’ve definitely felt myself falling into that at times. It’s a fine line to walk, between utilizing the rejection and criticism of the publishing/literary world to help yourself grow as a writer, and comprising your voice to that world; and similarly between using your blog as a platform for unrestrained self-expression, and using it as a masturbatory oversharing sesh. I think exactly where that line is is different for all of us, but it’s crucial that we each identify that line and stay mindful of that line, traverse it like tight-rope walkers and use that community we’ve built as our safety net.

None of which may be very good travel blogging advice, but is nonetheless what I’ve gleaned from my three years blogging, seventeen years self-publishing and twenty-five years writing.

Now gimme my party hat and my cake.

The Coming of the Storm

It was coming. The way it’s always coming, except for just after it’s came: a big-ass storm that’ll flood the alleys and clean the air and give the mosquitoes new pools of water in which to hatch.

I wake up exhausted—6:30am, out on the bike by 7:30, class at 8. A string of kids who won’t listen, a little boy who cries three hot angry tears when I kick him out for talking. It’s worse than if he sobbed, those three tears, worse in their restrain and fury—maybe at me but also at something else it seems, at whatever that thing in him is that can’t listen, can’t sit still, can’t stay in his fucking seat.

Hour break before I’ve gotta be back across town for tutoring—a private lesson for a Korean teenage boy about to start at the international school in a few weeks. His English isn’t great but he’s smart as a whip and well-mannered and tries hard, even when I can tell he doesn’t want to. Sometimes I suspect it’s just to humor me but it’s trying nonetheless, making a difference nonetheless, so I pretend not to notice.

Order a coffee, review my notes, brain too foggy, give up. Feel like my eyelids are weighted, sleep like a big mouth wanting to yawn around my forehead and take me back with it. Wish I could let it, sip my coffee, resolve to take a nap later.

Get on the moto, space out as I feel the humidity gathering, growing thick in the air like a cloud of bugs. Arrive at the apartment complex: one of four high-rises you can see clear across town. The building’s on this housing development, tacky and landscaped, with really crisp sidewalks and these massive sculptures of wild white stallions at every round-about—the kind of place a foreign company will put its workers up in, which is what my student’s family is.

I’m early so I go sit on the big foofy sofa in the foyer. It’s going for a French aristocrat look—tassled pillows and little clawed pegs, a faux-Impressionist painting on the wall that seems to dominate, overtake the room in way I haven’t ever quite seen another painting do. The effect is something other than what’s intended, almost Murakamian in its alienation, in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a novel instead of someone else’s real life.

Sit there and listen to the elevator ding and the security guard pacing in her clicky shoes and military cap. Try to read a bit of the book I downloaded last night, have a hard time digging it—get lost in the sentences, fend off that same feeling of all-consuming sleep. Have a brief pang of homesicknesses for Flannery O’Connor, homesick for my fat old Collected Works—not that I miss her but that I crave her, crave that line in Wise Blood about how Jesus was a wild ragged figure in someone’s mind, “motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

Resolve to Google the quote when I go home.

Check the time, ride the elevator, struggle my way through the hour and a half, dim brain and dull eyes. The boy does well today—write down what he says and show it to him, compare it with what he’d said a month ago, note the improvement. He smiles.

Drink the milk his mother gives me, the donut holes she fried in the kitchen while we were working. Eat them with a little fork. We don’t say much but smile a lot. She pays me, I thank her, she thanks me.

Get on another bike; the first few drops start, not light and misty but in heavy, deliberate plops. Stop, put on my plastic poncho that I don’t leave home without, strap my helmet back on.

Ride back but the rain doesn’t come, it peters out and receedes and I’m the only one on the road wearing my poncho. Feel like a jack-ass.

Get home, down some water, crawl up the stairs. Flip on the AC and collapse into bed without taking my dress or my leggings off.

It’s one of those sleeps that seems to kidnap you, to hit you like a dump truck, turn your limbs to lead and your brain into a pile of black at the front of your skull. Go thick and dreamless; roll over once, gasp, return.

Have a dream, a crazy lucid dreams where I’m completely cognizant, completely myself, but don’t know I’m sleeping. There’s a girl. A phantom really: pale skin and fangs. She might be a vampire. Sometimes she’s chasing me and I’m running—I go up on a ledge and she meets me there, hisses. But then it’s me who wants her, almost as though I want to seduce her, like something is compelling me to seduce her, and I knock her over and I grab at her ankles, draw her close to me. The world spins steeply beneath us.

I lose my grasp on her and she’s gone again, goes back to chasing me and I’m terrified. I feel her around me all the time; I “wake up” in a house (which isn’t waking up at all, and isn’t a house at all, more of a skinny hall of mirrors) and there’s a little girl there. She’s sweet and I’m trying to talk to her, to listen to her talk about Barbie’s or whatever—trying to be normal when really I feel that other girl, that vampire girl, everywhere, lurking around the house, trying to get in.

I squint as though my eyes were fogged. I have to write this, I think in the dream, write down what happened before it’s gone. But every time I try the pencil smudges and my vision blurs and something distracts me, some question or task, until I can’t see the fucking paper in front of me.

I wake up then. For real wake up, just long enough to roll over and wipe the drool off my chin. My head feels like a block of cement on the pillow and the room is black, blacker than it should be at 4pm. The sliver of sky I can see through the window is ripe and swollen.

What was she? I ask in my half-awakeness.

Writing, my black brain answers. She was writing.

Feel myself getting sucked back into sleep, quicksand-sucked, as the rain finally starts outside my window.

How Do You Write An Expat Blog, And Other Life Questions

Here's my terrace, for lack of a more relevant picture

So… you may have been able to tell by the infrequent and half-assed nature of my recent posts that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here anymore. With this blog, I mean.

Well, okay, I guess my life too.

I know how to write a travel blog. Not a super successful monetized one, but the kind of travel blog I want to write. I know what kind of material to look for and write about: snippets, character sketches, first impressions, cultural clashes, bizarre moments—the other-worldly, almost out-of-body moments that travel affords, that I’ve been craving and chasing for years now. I can even write a good informative, service post from time to time, and not feel totally smarmy about it. And when I’m not traveling, I know how to write travel-themed posts that manage to be relevant.

But I don’t know how to write an expat blog.

I’ve been in Phnom Penh for a little over two months now. I’ve left the city once, for 2 days; I’ve got a couple little trips planned, including one to Malaysia over Khmer New Year. But for the most part, I’m staying put. I’m focused on establishing a life here—getting a job and friends and more furniture and houseplants, a routine and rhythm to my days. It’s not dynamic, exciting stuff; there’s no a big wow, must-see factor. It’s kind of just my life, and I’m not sure how to write about it here.

I’m not sure of a lot right now. I’m new at this—my first time being an expat. I’d always been intrigued by them, as a traveler. You could spot them, you know—the ease, the breeziness, the comfort with which they walked down the street, talked to vendors in the local language, went about their business with the kind of self-possessed air of a person reading a book on the train, when you just know it’s their commute home and they’re thinking about dinner or what TV show they’re going to watch or whatever—mundane shit.

Now I’m one of them, and there’s a lot of shit that feels mundane, uninteresting to write about. Which isn’t true, of course—it’s just that I don’t know how to write about it.

And I’d always wondered what expats thought of travelers. I’d talk to friends, whose feelings ranged from indifference to embarrassment; one girl I knew, living in Santiago, would avoid eye contact with other gringas, she wanted to badly to not to be associated with tourists.

But for the most part, for me, they seem to exist on this other plane, walking up and down the riverside in their flip flops and tank tops, and they kind of fade into the static of life here, right along with the construction noises and metallic audio recording of the egg vendors.

But it’s funny, cause sometimes I notice them, just kind of watch them, and it’s a strange, unexpected feeling that comes up. It’s not jealously, but a sort of wistful longing. They have a kind of structure, a context and definition: They are travelers. They are passing through. For the most part they have book ends for being here—return tickets and lives waiting, houseplants being watered by friends in their absence. They have closets, I imagine, where all those zip-off pants and Tevas will return to.

And for the first time, I don’t have that. I don’t have the security, the knowledge of a life that’s waiting for me somewhere. Here’s my life, but I’m not exactly sure what that life is yet. I’m discovering it, and it’s exciting and scary and lonely and exactly where I need to be right now.

But I don’t know how to write about that.

But inbetween-nees seems to be the theme these days. I’m 29: I’m not old, but I’m also not young anymore, and there’s wrinkles where there didn’t used to be wrinkles. I don’t know what clothes to wear; I’d go to shows back in the States over the summer, and the band would look like they were 12, and everyone would be young, so young, glowing with young in a way that seems ravaged and obscene. And not me.

But I’m not totally sure what “me” is anymore. Or I suppose I should say, where me fits in this new life, that has yet to form. It’s slowly taking shape—I can feel it and I have a faith, which might be a blind faith but is a faith nonetheless, that it’ll all gonna work out.

I just don’t know how to write about it yet.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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