AUGUST 7, 2015
HAVING PUBLISHED two acclaimed memoirs in the space of a year, Wendy C. Ortiz is establishing herself as a powerful voice in the literary community. Her first book, Excavation, was an original narrative of sexual awakening, notable for Ortiz’s exploration of her own agency and desire as a teenager drawn to the seductive manipulations of her English teacher. The voice of the older, wiser narrator in Excavation is compassionate, balanced, firmly feminist.
It took Ortiz over a decade to write and publish Excavation. Hot on the heels of that groundbreaker comes Hollywood Notebook, a chronicle of Ortiz’s early 30s in Los Angeles, as she struggles to make a living for herself as a writer. Lifted from her journals, Hollywood Notebook reads like a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Excavation. With regular references to the writing of that memoir, Ortiz bears witness to the writerly process: the habitual return to the page, the blocked days, the boredom, the lightning flashes of inspiration, the oscillation between passion and doubt typical of any work in progress. In the midst of Ortiz’s intense hypergraphia, she wavers in her faith in the story she’s writing, not always certain it should see the light of day. Readers of Excavation will recognize the references to it and be grateful she stuck with the process.
Hollywood Notebook stands on its own, though, and enjoyment of these fragmentary passages is not at all dependent on acquaintance with Ortiz’s prior publications. Readers who like their heroines scrappy and their prose lyrical will delight in Hollywood Notebook’s intimate descriptions of a restless mind at work:
I’m a writer like so many other unknown writers all over this city. I have ordinary concerns, like paying rent on an apartment in Hollywood, the merry-go-round of moving my car twice a week for street cleaning, riding the Metro five days out of seven to a job, wondering about love and obsessing about sex and publishing and what will happen next.
Young woman moves to the big city to “make it” as an artist — it’s a classic Bildungsroman. Hollywood Notebook’s narrator worries, in these frantic, disparate journal entries, about rent, overdue library books, joblessness, and the lack of cold running tap water. In an evocative observation on the first page, Ortiz entertains “thoughts of turning the oven on, slipping the last cut of bread inside, butter melting on its white crispy pores.” Such casual asides accumulate into a convincing and realistic portrait of a struggling artist in a city packed to the hilt with one’s own desperate kind. You can hear the growl of the Metro bus on every page, feel the squeak of the Naugahyde chair, and smell the cigarette smoke. Each tenderly wrought detail evokes the crackling sense of wonder we feel as young adults when the world appears pregnant with possibility and dread.
The memoir is plotless, almost picaresque, in its quotidian observations of life in a metropolis. Some of the passages take on a drifting, wandering quality, but there’s an electric undertow to Ortiz’s narrations of the daily grind. Behind the lists of items in her room, the recording of meals eaten and items purchased, there pulses a magnetic passion, evident in passages like this one:
The story of where your mind will go when you are on the verge of collapsing in on yourself, the story of true, deep forgiveness, but mostly this: the story of deciding finally, that if you cannot go up, then you must go down, deeper, into the dark, into the place you have always been coached, scolded and warned to avoid. For many it’s that place you imagine you will go to and never return from, a place of suffering and the end. And it is there, in that place, that you find your way out.
The cadences of the sentences sometimes rollick like waves and sometimes jump in a sharp staccato: a cluster of short declarative sentences will be followed by a lyrical meditation on pain, written in second-person. Fragments interrupt run-ons. She makes no effort to explain any narrative. We are given an expositionless dream world of friends, lovers, illicit affairs, exes, and comrades in arms. These characters wind in and out of the pages, and we are left to infer or just imagine their emotional histories with the narrator. Very few people are referred to by more than their first initial. Keeping the characters straight is unnecessary. They orbit Ortiz’s life and its singular purpose: creation.
I found myself drawn to the list chapters. Ortiz rattles off a litany of objects at her desk, a checklist of items brought back from a trip to Ecuador, or of ingredients for resuscitation. When grouped together this way, ordinary objects become inhabited by heavier meanings. The laundry list of flotsam on Ortiz’s desk becomes incantatory. The phrases roll in and out, building upon and punctuating each other. It’s also a forensic inventory that reveals the life of a working-class writer. A “stack of library books” makes up more of Ortiz’s reading material than purchased ones. The bill from the electric company, a little dish of quarters, things to be given away: this is not the seductive mise-en-scene of an “artist’s loft” from a design blog, with tidy surfaces white as sails. This is the clutter of a woman who has shit to do. Commitments to keep. Budgets to balance.
She struggles with her relationship to alcohol, and at times reveals her shame: “You will not love me after you read this,” Ortiz declares as she describes a night in the desert with a bottle of chardonnay, a night in which she lost “the switch,” – the word she gives for her sense of self-control:
It is an outrage. That occasionally it goes missing and I am left to my hedonistic and sometimes dangerous ways. Inflicting harm. Poison in the bloodstream that gets sweated out of me if I’m lucky. Dank scent of alcohol mixed in with the dirt of the desert and wood burning. The switch that tells me, sometimes, to quit drinking, let the warm feeling stay right where it is, don’t compound it, is absent.
It’s evident here that the Ortiz of these notebooks wrestles with the shame and ambivalence that come with a lack of willpower in the face of addiction. She may revel in a consciousness-raising hallucinogenic trip on Venice Beach on one page, and berate herself for binge drinking on another. This contradiction is not solved between the covers of Hollywood Notebook; Ortiz doesn’t “see the light” or put down the bottle with finality. Instead, she ruthlessly seeks health in all other areas of her life, in a constant search for wholeness, even through unhealthy substances. For every paragraph about a night on the roof polishing off an entire bottle of wine, there is another paragraph about Ortiz’s daily hikes up the steep trail to the peak of Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park — the joy of sunlight and sweat on burning muscles, the furious expanding and contracting of tobacco-dusted lungs. She trains for the LA Marathon, she swims in the ocean, she walks for miles. Ortiz cares about her body, takes delicious pleasure from its power. Even when she smokes and drinks too much.
Ortiz strives for political and spiritual meaning in her life as well. She approaches her writing routine as a religion, consecrating her spaces, treating her writing desk as an altar, slipping into a reverie when deep in the act of writing. She regards her memories as sacred texts, and the act of remembering as a prayer. Hers is a secular-pagan spirituality that reads significance in planetary alignments, the light of the full moon, the “other planes” that can be accessed through hallucinogens. She experiences a deep animistic wonder contemplating the ocean and the landscapes of the desert.
Though less central, political activism makes a notable appearance — Ortiz’s desire to make a significant contribution to the world. Recounting her days as a twentysomething radical in Olympia, Ortiz mournfully admits that she isn’t as active as she once was:
I am reminded that in a not-so-recent past, I attended workshops as often as possible, actively learning and unlearning things that ended in -ism, and I danced, and I acted, and I wrote and I studied. I went to Portland and to Seattle to get my fix of trainings and modules and lessons. I wrote articles, debated fine points. I rode my bicycle up and over the hill and back again with a fleet of like-minded. I held the video camera and shot the rolls of film. I marched and paraded and edited down reels. Booked my weeks far in advance. Pressed play. Learned to yell for my life. Painted and posed naked. Deposited checks. Copied handouts. Upped the volume. Held the forum. Shouted into megaphone. Spoke into the microphone. Locked arms. Pasted ups. Talked finance. Created the zines. Recruited. Presented, established, cooperated. Cooked down herbal decoctions. Counseled women whose shoes I’d been in. Listened. Listened. Floated. Floated. Wore the protective mask. Sold the tickets, raised the money. Handed the books out. Turned the lights at the end of the night.
This tumbling, exhaustive list is a pitch-perfect recreation of the life of a post-grad activist. Elsewhere in the book, Ortiz describes the surreal and terrifying experience of tear gas and canons at the WTO protests in Seattle, 1999. She references CrimethInc, Adbusters, her early dreams of starting Radical Girl Scouts. She writes of these formative years with the fire in her heart that anyone who has hurtled themselves into the social justice struggle has experienced. Now, having separated herself from that crucible by a thousand miles of coastline, Ortiz seems to feel a bit unmoored, partly due to the pendulum swing of the political climate that came at the turn of the millennium. Hollywood Notebook is a vivid chronicle of an individual woman writer’s searching years, and at the same time an apt representation of the communal disenfranchisement of the Bush years. Ortiz’s notebook pins down all the big events: The 2004 election, Hurricane Katrina, the 2006 immigrant rights demonstrations. One eight-page chapter is devoted solely to a transcription of Bush’s speech before the National Endowment for Democracy on October 6, 2005, with choice words replaced with “imperialist,” “capitalism,” and “radical Christian right”; the speech thus reads as a leftist invective against militarization: “We’re facing a radical (capitalist) ideology with inalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world. . . . (Peace and social justice movements) will never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory.” Who among us progressives did not translate our feelings of powerlessness into such rhetorical exercises in the bleak days of the mid-aughts? This is the tale of an activist looking for a foothold, trying to determine where her gifts might best be utilized.
The closing chapters lead towards Ortiz’s impending first marriage to a man she refers to as “the firecracker.” On the last page, Ortiz also describes the “sex charge rapid fire when she’s in the room. Or my three foot radius. Or in the same building, one floor below.” Readers of Ortiz’s earlier essays may insinuate that this “she” is the Sandy with whom Ortiz fell in love during her brief marriage to “the firecracker.” Knowing Sandy is now Ortiz’s partner and the mother of her child lends a sense of dramatic irony to this final chapter. By the end of Hollywood Notebook, we have witnessed Ortiz’s journey through her early 30s, all her philosophizing about monogamy and intimacy; we have seen her move twice, leave a secure job to write full time, interrogate her motives, roll back and restore a commitment to her manuscript. And we know what her narrator does not quite yet; we know that, on the eve of her marriage, she stands at the mouth of the next emotional gauntlet, out of which hopefully will one day emerge another soul-socking, take-no-prisoners tempest of a memoir.