My CNF story “Enby Late Starter” is live in issue 10 of Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction! Thanks so much to all of you for reading and supporting both my work and myself over the years!
My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.
Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.
Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.
It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.
Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.
I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.
I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.
In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.
I’m having a recurring dream that I’m a glam rocker living in London in the early ’70s, or at least I’m embedded in that scene at that time. In the dream, I don’t grace the stage so much as lace the pages of other singers with my music. I’m not myself, but some tall, lanky, bespectacled creature with mop hair and a crooked nose, and I’m getting drunk on brandy and writing at night by the light of the television, playing Top of the Pops. In the dream timeline, I’m living in Soho, paying my rent off the words I sell to others, making just about enough to also afford a pack of fags and a couple bottles of brandy, and I’m indulging in both, and it’s all starting to feel less like a dream and more like a long-forgotten memory.
I’m watching the Pops, and getting proper pissed on the brandy (I don’t know where these words are coming from), letting the ash of my fag come perilously close to dropping on my lap before ashing it, writing down chori and verses, then ditching them, scratching them out, as Pan’s People boogie to Jeepster by T. Rex. I stand up and mimic the moves, only partially imagining those people up and dancing to my music instead, sung by me, not belted out of the bleating mouths of addled singers snorting what wages are left to them like crumbs from their bloated record company, which is what’s presently happening in the dream. All of these things and more run through my mind as I keep myself locked in that flat night after night, writing about things I’m not doing, writing for people who are doing them but who just can’t find the right words.
On Saturday evenings, I find myself in the back row of the cinema, transported to other worlds where ghoulish zombies shamble over American countrysides and cities, where metal men come down to Earth in silver saucers that you’d swear were models hanging from strings, especially when they wobble as they “fly” through the air in what’s meant to be a vicious attack on our planet.
I come back home to my flat after these showings, still a bit pissed from the earlier brandy, and I lie down in this dream flat, on my dream bed, and I fall asleep and enter a dream’s dream, where I find myself standing in the center of a cutting-edge sci-fi film set (cutting-edge in 1971 anyway), with myself as the primary actor, makeup applied and prosthetics fitted as I am made into a monster and forced to sing my woes for no one in particular to hear, as everyone is too busy making sure the scene comes to fruition, milling about here and there as they go.
Like clockwork, I’ll awake from this recurring dream, still feeling like a creature with no agency over his creation, usually just in time to hear a song I’ve written being performed on the radio by someone I’ve never met personally. I can never quite seem to wake from this dream once I’ve entered, once I’ve heard those mangled words rendered in generic, saccharine melodies, the bubblegum banality. But at least my words are at the core, at least my words remain undisturbed, I convince myself, my thoughts like a pendulum as I consider singing along and throwing my radio out the window, alternately.
I wander the streets now, at dawn, knowing that I’m dreaming but not quite wanting to wake up, maybe not able to, stuck sometimes in a dream within a dream. I know in the back of my mind that I’m in a pod, alone, somewhere in a barren future I’ve only seen in passing glances when the simulation glitches. I’m somewhere in a world I’d rather not be in, but here in this dream within a dream I can at least make music, make use of my body and move through a world that is not torn.
I think tomorrow I’ll sing. If this simulation, this dream, is a lucid one, I see no reason to stand in the back of the hall, to lend my words to other people in other pods who are similarly comatose. I’ll put on the best damn glam rock opera show in all the great, wide wasteland.
It’s slipstream living here, in the wake of Stonewall’s fiftieth, and I’m thinking of this year’s Pride, only maybe the third or fourth I’ve been to, it being as many years since I gave voice to something I always knew but tried to hide, maybe tried to ignore. And in going to these parades not knowing what to expect, what it would mean for me, if anything. Looking at people dressed however they wanted to be dressed, singing, dancing. The pageantry and glitter, makeup and candy. I was still self-censoring then, still outwardly heteronormative at all times, so I didn’t dance or anything, didn’t dress up. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
And the inevitable protesters, with signs reading “Born that way? Burn that way!” and “LGBT” spelling out “Let God Burn Them.” The initial disbelief that people like that still exist, then the realization of tangible, real-world intolerance, of something beyond the jokes and insults when I was a kid, when “gay” was synonymous with “stupid” or “bad,” when “faggot” was the worst thing you could be called. Something more sad, more dangerous. One of the protesters was there with his kid, the girl no older than 11 or 12 and already forced to spout the same soundbites as her father, looking like she didn’t want to be there but having no choice. Enforced bigotry. The strategy was split between two camps, generally: those who argued with the guy and those who refused to give him the attention he wanted. And that’s fine, commendable even, but I was raised to never back down from a fight, to always answer an insult–a vestigial behavior from childhood, where what was enforced then was a caricature of masculinity. Old habits really do die hard.
I want there to have been some big Rise Above moment for me, but there wasn’t really. I got myself between him and the people he was trying to bother, and he casually used the word “faggot” as he argued his point, and all I could see was douche kids from elementary school, all I could think was to hit him, and if not for the strategically-placed cop standing next to him making sure no one did just that, then I would’ve.
I went to my first live performance of The Rocky Horror Show that night. I’d seen RHPS on VHS hundreds of times, then DVD when the technology changed, then midnight showings at theaters with shadow casts, but I’d never seen a performance of the play that started it all, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Back at home, after Pride but before the show, my girlfriend was the one to suggest I show up with my makeup done, legit, like something Frank would wear. She’d do it for me. I’d like to say I jumped at the idea right away, but that wouldn’t be true. I brought up concerns like the makeup smearing when I’d put my motorcycle helmet on, that it might take too long, etc. etc. I was happy that Harmony poked holes in all my excuses. So I agreed, and sat for her, my face her canvas.
Being there among fellow fans, receiving their compliments and comparing our histories with Rocky Horror, none of them batted an eye at my makeup. If anything, they admired it. The actor playing Frank-n-Furter personally acknowledged me in the front row while singing “I’m Going Home,” and I sat there with tears in my eyes even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before. And then, when it was over, we all stood up for curtain call to join in on a reprise of The Time Warp. And being there, finally, with my makeup how I wanted, dressed the way I wanted, singing and dancing without a care in the world… It felt like coming alive.
I have to say, it felt pretty fucking fantastic to read this email. 😁 I’m happy to report that my creative nonfiction story “Enby Late Starter” was just accepted for publication in Echo, an imprint of @paragon_press. To say I’m excited is a severe understatement. You best believe I’ll provide linkage once this is live!
It’s beginner’s mind, late at night, or something like that, the hours keep shifting around, but you’re listening to an old playlist and planning out scenes, lining up shots, storyboarding, then there’s fiddling with the camera, adjusting ISO, f-stop, white balance. Wanting things to be natural while meticulously planning every detail. You haven’t shot anything in a while, and it makes you antsy just to think about it. It was long enough for you to have to get reacquainted with the practice of filmmaking, the grind of it, the absolute exhilaration and mind-numbing boredom.
It’s always the poles with making movies, you decide–the highs and lows. You think back to one of your therapy appointments from years ago, when they thought your mind was governed by two poles, but the “mania” they pegged you for was something more approaching heavy rumination, trauma thought, turning over and over the past, drinking to sleep sometimes, being gripped by the spasm of physical remembrance, trying to stay busy to distract from the shit-thought buzzing around in your head, in those days, as it came, which was often.
So you start with a script, now, not green enough to be unaware of the ways that it will change, and that’s something in itself, isn’t it? Change. When you were green–the way that any rewrites or changes felt like a slow knife into your gut, and now rewrites feel like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash.
You get paralyzed by the page, sometimes, still. That’s still a thing, and the way your mind goes to all the dark, spider-webbed cracks and crevices, the barren wastes where you thought your fears and doubts disappeared but where actually they just went to sleep for a while. The thing about mindfulness, about growth, is that you go in with the false belief that all the bad stuff will just Go Away. That there will be a great Buddhic a-ha moment where it will All Make Sense and you will be permanently and irrevocably okay. You can’t believe now that you were ever that green to believe that.
What it is–what it really is–is a series of moments: a stumble-fall-rising, the getting up to fall down to get back up again, always getting back up, seeing past the aches and pains, the tired mornings, the shit pages and shit footage, getting a brilliant moment and taking it in your hands. Of losing it, and then finding another moment. Of being okay with failing. Of seeing it, finally, as an inexorable and integral part of the process.
There’s another side effect of getting older, and that’s understanding the perspective of your parents. You are now as old as they were when they had you, and even though you don’t want kids and will never have them, you can appreciate the supreme difficulty. You can watch in memory as your father would sketch and draw–impeccably detailed work, in the spaces between job and home responsibilities, and then how the drawings started to fade, replaced by cans and bottles of beer, until your father was in a single, sustained buzz for most of your childhood.
Your mother’s half-remembered dreams to one day act, laughing them away at first, but later trailing off at the ends of sentences, of her eyes growing hard over the years. Even now, you write for the actor. You craft for their craft, trying to never step on toes or overwrite dialogue. Even if you wanted kids, you couldn’t see yourself giving up on what you want to do for them, you couldn’t see yourself giving in and succumbing to the years.
It’s not that you’re now okay with the drinking and the yelling and the fighting, the divorce and all the rest, it’s that you understand it a little bit more. And these are all things that will go in your film, you suppose. You will color these moments with sustained shots and candid close-ups and clever mise-en-scène, if you can remember what that’s supposed to be, the stilted picking-apart that is serious study, breaking down each shot, each movement, all of it motivated, all of it meaning something. You’ll get final cut on your memories, or at least the renderings you make of them.
In lieu of a short story, here’s an experimental, existential short horror film that I shot on a telephone. Happy Halloween!
Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.
I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.
When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.
There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.
Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.
In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.
I guess one of the things that’s fucking me up is that I’m supposed to be some mentor figure, some example, I’ve got the office hours and everything, but most days I’m just trying to get through without drinking too much, or if I am drinking too much, then without it showing.
I started out adjunct, shit pay, enough where I had to settle for the rotgut at the convenience store before I could afford the good stuff. I guess they were impressed by the fact that I kept shooting, that I was teaching filmmaking while still making films, like that was some exceptional thing, as if I had a choice. Because, truth is, I drink a lot, but I’d drink a lot more if I couldn’t make movies.
All the classes I teach are things I learned out of necessity, pretty much. Writing on a strict schedule (because I couldn’t afford to dick around), studying acting tech (because I’d often have to act in my own films starting out), microbudget filmmaking (that one’s obvious).
I didn’t have the luxury of film school, so I created my own with early internet forums and bootleg software and library late fees. I learned how to write screenplays by reading and writing screenplays. I submitted to contests, and I lost every one, but I got some encouraging notes once, when I scrounged up enough for the extra fee for guaranteed notes, and there was no way for that anonymous reader to know that the contents of their notes would decide my future, that I was just about to give it all up until I read that encouragement, until I realized that my scripts weren’t bad, they just weren’t yet as good as the other scripts. And that’s just something you have to learn by doing.
I get up around noon most days, tell myself it’s because my first classes don’t start until later anyway, but it’s really to allow myself time and space to nurse the inevitable hangovers. I don’t know. I’ll sit at home, in my chair, for hours sometimes, and just bite at my nails. I’ll bite till they bleed, till my fingers hurt when I wash my hands. I can tell that I’m changing.
I try to write something every day, even if I end up hating it, even if it’s shit. I’ll jot things down on paper first, even with the pain in my fingers from the pressure of gripping the pen, because it’s a different process, writing versus typing. I drink every day now, I guess.
One thing that’s interesting is to stay up past the effects of caffeine from earlier that morning, past alcohol when I get home and past the melatonin to help get me to sleep. To watch that liminal part of the brain start to take over. The part that makes you dream and keeps you there. I’ll sit down like that, and I’ll keep my eyes open, and I’ll look at things without actually seeing them.
I want to write something big, and bold, and dangerous. Something real. I want there to be something left of me when I’m gone.
On nights like this, working past the sleep, I’ll see only the transitions of a screenplay as I write, only the cues meant to begin and end, the FADE IN & FADE OUT that I guess is going on all around me. I write past these things. I write through them.
I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.
I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.
I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.
I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.
I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.
I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.
I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.