Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The writing life

When I graduated college with a degree in literature, I dazzled me. If asked, I could discuss Milton, Keats, Sterne, Yeats, Lawrence, Barth, Twain, Joyce, and Cary.

The thing is, was, and forever shall be, no one ever asks. Same goes for my opinion on various translations of Dostoevsky, even though the names Constance Garnett and Larissa Volokhonsky have, for a quarter of a century, been prepared to take a swan dive, splashless, off the tip of my tongue.

After college, my only job offer came from a San Fernando publishing house, as writer and dogsbody for a general aviation magazine. I took the job, but felt like an actor who’d spent years in repertory only to star in a tampon commercial. (Mom, can I ask you a personal question – do you always feel, you know, fresh?)

The general aviation magazine was one of the company’s five prestige titles. We had an editorial staff of three, with five regular contributors (two of whom died in helicopter and arobatic accidents). As low man on the totem pole, and even lower than that as I was a woman, I doubled as proofreader. The first issue I worked on had a two-page center spread about piloting your plane from Los Angeles to New York. I missed a typo, so the title – a banner splashed across both pages – read, “ULTIMATE FREEDOM: FLYING CROSS COUNTY.”

Now, about the publishing company itself. As my editor liked to say, we were in the house that porn built. In other words, there were a few legit and even, within a very limited scope, well-regarded titles; the money drains, the beards, as it were. The cash cows were some magazines that made Hustler look like US News and World Report.

The legits and porns shared the same building, with strong rules of non-engagement. However, when the legits got bored, which was often, we’d sneak over to the wild side – not to watch the shooting itself, just the traffic.

The main photographer for the porns was a 70 or 80 year man, who seemed more liquid than solid. He had pale blue, teary eyes, drips he wiped away with a hanky. He greeted all his new models the same way, “Hi, honEEE. Did you bring your license?” We figured the girls posed for the first picture holding a driver’s license to prove they were of age.

Sometimes the girls came with a friend or a sister. Or a mother. We knew it was a mother because the photographer would say, “So who’s the daughter and who’s the mommy?” before closing and locking the studio door.

I lasted less than a year. My next job was writing ad copy for a burial insurance company. That’s when I learned about the relativism of art. I had found possibly the only job that could make the topic of optional avionics on a Lear Jet seem like poetry.

42 comments:

  1. I'm always impressed with someone who can understand literature. I could never get into it. Too much left brain control. No one ever asks me the best aluminum alloy for basic parts manufacture. I'm certain I'll die before it ever comes up. You're not alone.

    Your wit with writing always entertains. Thanks.

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  2. "Cary"?
    Joyce Cary?
    Joyce "The Horses Mouth" Cary?

    "The Writing Life" reads "The Horses Mouth" in minature.

    (And I can't believe you've been sitting on the "“So who’s the daughter and who’s the mommy?” story for years now.)

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  3. Yes, Joyce Cary! The Horses Mouth Cary! Thank you, K.

    And Pierre, you're wrong. Because now I'm asking, what is the best aluminum alloy for basic parts manufacture. And while you fashion your reply, let me tell you all I know about Russian translations...

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  4. Bloody hell! This is an eye opening post. For some reason behind the scenes info on the porn industry is endlessly fascinating. More please.

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  5. 6061-T6, and thanks for asking.

    Karin, which of those authors is
    your favorite and why?

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  6. Well now, my first job after college was writing copy for a bank brochures. I think I have you beat when it comes to excitement (or the lack thereof).

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  7. Well, you say Volokhonsky and I say Pevear. Or tomahto. Let me sleep on it.

    JJ

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  8. First, thanks for almost making me spew white wine and honey pretzel bits all over my computer with your "do you always feel, you know, fresh?" line. I can't wait to ask my mom that when we chat tonight! I think your varied and interesting early writing life has definitely given you fodder for some awesome stories (this post included, which is pure delight). Aviation, porn and burials. Classic.

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  9. What Katie said. Except it was white wine and a Greek salad.

    wv datie
    Mom! This tampon makes me feel soooo datie!

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  10. Wow. You do have a most interesting history. We should do lunch one day. *grin*

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  11. I think the photographer's eyes were watery from weeping. He probably understood relativism, too. But he was old and needed the money.

    I'm glad you know how actors feel. May I tell you about this week's specials?

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  12. When you're finished with the specials, Petrea, I'll explain why you should plan your own burial. (Hint: Nothing says eternity like satin.)

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  13. AH, I'm jealous in so many ways. I always wanted a BF I could talk airplanes with. Instead I get a husband hung up on preposition-ending sentences.
    Are you free for coffee? I'll meet ya at the Burbank Airport coffee shop!

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  14. Brenda, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.

    Hey Hiker: whatever the subject, you write it, I'll speak it into the mic and they'll be putty in our hands. It could be funerals, groceries or porn but since it's ours, let's make it--oh, I don't know, whaddaya say, great literature?

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  15. I'll tell you all about my flying lessons someday, Brenda.

    P, given your fans are so loyal they even save tapes of your old traffic reports, I'd say this is a winnah.

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  16. Shall I compare thee to a Sigalert?

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  17. Sears Catalogue, 1992. Boy's Parkas and Men's Shoes. That was me.

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  18. Coffee...spewing coffee!!!

    No honey pretzel bits though...

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  19. So, when did you say you were arriving to make my 11 year old just adore that damned poetry? Oh, well, it's probably hopeless anyway. And I can make tensile testing seem pretty glamorous. BTW, the T6 alloy is a workhorse for basic parts manufacture. At least, it's the most commonly tested alloy, so I'm presuming it is. And I just don't understand why Gulfstream doesn't let their vendors test ride their products...

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  20. Damn! Now I read through the rest of the comments and find out that Pierre has already told you about T6!

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  21. Waiting for it ... the flying lessons I mean.

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  22. spewing...nothing more interesting than water, thankfully I turned away from the screen.

    when I worked for a biz journal, we had all sorts of offers from local companies. As the low man in the shop, I fielded all SORTS of interesting calls. Our editor was a str8 shooter and anything even hinting of the skeezy side of town he would shoot down in a half of a heartbeat. We had "fun" specials like "who's who and how much do they make"...meaning I got to wade thru annual reports and faxes to calculate how much a CEO made in $ and stocks (assuming they told us the truth)...zzzzzzzzz.

    But I can see it now...the brochure written to sell your skills...K will write your illicit porn, P will vocalize it, your porn company will make millions from the skills of this two lady dream tag-team.

    and hasn't anyone ever heard of dirty old men? who is to say the photog wasn't enjoying it?! I've got an 80+ year old friend who keeps trying to get me to pose for his shoot...uh yeah, no Bud, sorry, really.

    wv: momzer...doesn't anyone check the wv words against REAL Yiddish words?!?!

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  23. I've often wondered what I might have done if not teaching. And I often figured there were tasks worse than grading papers. Truly, this is good info, but also some of your best humor. Did the aviation mag write about how to keep air traffic controllers awake?

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  24. I'm picturing a "Boogie Nights" scene down the hall from you, quite an interesting continuation of your education.

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  25. I worked across the street from the Playboy Building in West Hollywood. We knew they took pictures in there and we saw some babes, but it's not the same.

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  26. No one ever asks, or asked, you about those wordsmiths??

    Lemme just ask you then about the Rolling Stones. The words to "Just my Imagination": did they write that or was it really someone else??
    Just Wundering.

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  27. I like Marjie's "damned poetry." On the whole, I prefer prose.

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  28. English majors really do lead more fascinating lives.

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  29. This only strengthens my argument of, when asked, "what is your field of study?"

    My stock answer: "I'm working toward a degree to never seek employment again."

    Only the head of the English Dept. seemed to understand.

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  30. Me? I always try to stay fresh... each and every day.

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  31. It was fog and fuel ... or was it fuel and fog?

    wv: undewe

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  32. Hey! "I like Marjie's 'damned poetry.' On the whole, I prefer prose."

    Hey! Hating, damning, or otherwise disparaging poetry reflects a serious character flaw . . . even in California.

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  33. That's a good nonsequitur, Hiker. How about this:

    (Good) poems rid the language of plaque.

    And why should I read a labored, self-important novel when I can get more beauty and wisdom in a page?-- if the poem is good.

    Life is short; poems are short. Read one today.

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  34. Tonight I have time (@ procrastination station) to delve into the wonderland that is planet you.

    I love your way with words. You were born with an ear for language. It's obvious, and musical. Your college credits have nothing to with it, although they are credible references, of course.

    I dub thee the Dorothy Parker of Altadena. We are such fortunate readers.

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