Before I Lose the Minutiae

NEA Fellows in Los Angeles, April 24, 2009

Aw, Hell, it’s already gone.

It’s been six days since my NEA Fellowship wrapped up in Los Angeles with ace program director Sasha Anawalt dancing to U2’s “Beautiful Day” (twice) while making her closing remarks to me and my 22 new best friends from media outlets around the country. The program was a 11-day motion blur spent talking about the nature and purpose of Art, and criticism, with journalists and theatre artists; of sobering reports of arts journalists (including many of the ones in the room) losing their jobs; of experiencing theatre; of being schooled in writing, but also in dancing and acting; of critiquing each other’s written work; of being isolated in a fancy hotel together; eating together; being bussed everywhere together; and of drinking together every night, accumulated sleep-dep and looming deadlines be damned.

No summary of how I spent that time would convey how profoundly affecting it was for all of us, even as we were all conscious of the cult-like immersion-bonding taking place. Our farewell last Friday was a teary-eyed, bleary-eyed gauntlet of intense hugging, no side-hugs or one-armed, back-slapping bro-hugs allowed. And now it’s been over for half as long as it went on. I’ve been wanting to write about it, and I have, a little. But mostly I’ve been lazy.

No, not lazy: afraid. I’ve been cowed by the seeming enormity of the task of trying to put everything that happened into a context that would make sense to anybody who wasn’t there. I know that paralysis contradicts everything we were taught about writing during those 11 days, but I haven’t been able to help myself.

Fortunately, our high-minded, enthusiastic musings on the future of art (and our despondent lamentations about the increasing unlikelihood of earning a living writing about art) included some practical, easily implemented, nuts-and-bolts writing tips courtesy of the great and generous Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. Among his dictates was this: Fuck completion. Choose what you most need to say, and say that.

So thank you, Michael. Sitting in two writing-group discussion sessions overseen by you, and hearing your brilliant lecture “Giving the Thumbs the Finger” about how to be a better critic, both make my highlight reel of the trip.

And the others?

Meeting Sasha for the first time and sticking my hand out, only to be greeted by a big hug instead.

Having Bob Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, meticulously line-edit my Loretta Lynn and Raphael Saadiq reviews, and, after making his corrections, paying me the unlikely compliment, “You don’t need me.”

Being part of a small audience for lectures by people of big-room talent: Longtime L.A. Weekly theatre critic (now critic-at-large) Steven Leigh Morris. Critic-turned-dramaturg-turned Broadway producer Jack Viertel, who deconstructed the Broadway musical for us with such incisive wit that he makes it look easy to be that smart.

An encouraging and inspiring master class with Ann Powers, chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times, formerly of Seattle’s Experience Music Project and the New York Times. I love it when you meet people you’ve admired for a long time and they turn out to be as generous as they are talented.

Winding up in a writing group with Steve Rowland, a Peabody-winning producer of long-form radio documentaries about Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among others. And with Dave Lefkowitz, who at first seemed more nervous than I was, but soon showed himself to be a tenacious, thorough and stylish critic, and then a hilarious performer himself.

Standing in a comic book store on Melrose, picking out nerd T-shirts with my new pals-for-life Glen Weldon of the Washington City Paper and Mike Merschel of the Dallas Morning News. Weldon went with the Justice League. Merschel picked out Capt. Kirk’s gold jersey from the original Rubber Soul-era Star Trek. I got a Sun Records shirt. So I guess I lost the geek-off. This time.

I could go on. But that wouldn’t serve you, really. So instead I’ll put a pin in this and pledge to employ what I’ve learned to bring you — and the country, because this was a publicly funded trip, after all — superior arts journalism.

As a freelancer, you feel starved for interaction with other writers. This was the first year freelancers like me outnumbered staff journalists. The staffers are dropping like flies, of course. We got reports each morning of another paper that had decided to go without a full-time critic. Naturally, there was a lot of discussion of what journalists must do to survive. Technological competence was emphasized. A lot of what we did — Twitter, blogging tips — might seem rudimentary to my fellow volunteer journalists at DCist, but for veterans now finding themselves having to cope in a fully-freelance world, these lessons were invaluable.

Merschel captured the sense of elation amid difficult times in a Facebook note he posted shortly after returning to his newsroom in Dallas. Merschel is a perceptive guy with plenty enough imagination to cover the arts honorably — he wrote (and, full disclosure, cast me in) a short parody of Casablanca that we performed along with four or five other Fellow-penned short plays the day before we all left. I heard him talk a lot during the fellowship about the increasing pressure on newspaper staffers to “do more with less,” as David Simon derisively put it, which I’m sure can be at least as much of a buzzkill as hermit-like freelance isolation.

But my pal Mike and I are finding our way through it, all alone together.

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