As I said a few weeks ago, I spent the better part of last month in Italy, the first week being at a writer’s conference called Sirenland. I went knowing absolutely nothing about how it worked, knowing absolutely nobody, and in the end, it reshaped the way I think about conducting myself. Yeah, “youth is wasted on the young”, and epiphanies are wasted on those too old to use them, but occasionally one sneaks in whilst still relevant.
Sirenland is about writers, by writers, for writers, and yet I don’t think I took away a lot about writing – which in many ways, is the mark of true success. If you go to a comic convention and come away versed in love, if you take a class on glass-blowing and you come away knowing you must quit your miserable job… then you truly dipped your heel in sacred waters.
Dating back to 2005, in many ways, I did LA all wrong again. I never considered it a home, and never made the proper effort to forge a community. In doing so, I sank into isolation and a well-documented occasional depression that brought up frightening spectres of my ghastly days as a kid. All that shit I’d conquered at Carolina, the emergence as a popular bon vivant from the depths of despair – I felt like I was losing it again, reverting once more to an awkward pariah.
In Positano, I learned – despite years of semi-self-imposed alienation – that I could still make friends out of total strangers, speak in public, make other human beings laugh across the room. Does that seem pathetic? Maybe so, but some of us are born needing 4 ounces more affirmation than others, and I’m no longer going to pretend I’m not one of them.
Sirenland also provided a huge service: it was a place that was unapologetic about Art. The commerce side of writing could wait; while you were in those marble rooms, gazed upon by busts of Etruscan leaders, it was about YOUR FEELINGS and YOUR WIZARDRY and HOW BEST TO DIVINE YOUR TRUTH.
Back in Los Angeles, we live lives of such apology and disclaimers and endless changes being made to satisfy accountants. You can live a long time in that world and not think it affects you, but it does. Everything you experience is coated with an imperceptible sheen of cynicism: even last Saturday night, as Tessa screened our short film, she introduced it as a “trifle” and I told somebody it was “too short to find anything to hate.”
The truth is, a lot of people worked really hard, especially my wife, and we love how it came out. But that would expose us, so we hem and occasionally haw.
Not so with Sirenland, where your artistry ruled supreme, detractors be damned. I started out the week suggesting everyone could benefit from a good old-fashioned outline and a clear journey for our protagonists, but soon enough, I just basked in everyone’s visions.
A group of us became inseparable lunch and dinner partners, so much like school that old joys came seeping back. We were living in the most beautiful dorm in the world, and they made our beds.
Near the end, there was a shift in mood. Some friends had problems representing their experience to spouses back home, others bisolated into intense romances, one amazing woman expressed anger she couldn’t define, and I was certainly exhausted emotionally.
Since then, we’ve tried to define what happened: the woman thinks it was getting too “friendship-intimate” too quickly, another suggested it was the guilt of being surrounded by such opulence. For me, though, versed over years of Jartaculars and road trips, it was the knock-knock on the door of my old friend Shame.
Shame came to tell us that we weren’t allowed to be so close to your fellow tribe; that we weren’t supposed to use the Lavender Body Milk in the jacuzzi; that intense, glorious discussions like these were only for college students and drunk travelers in their 20s.
The convention was drawing to a close, Shame explained, and we were soon going to be back in our worlds, back where the only Art that matters is that which can generate income, and where your dreams take a distant back seat to those of your kids, and your goddamn job. Shame said he was going to make it easier for us, the re-entry, that he was going to grease the wheels of our spinner luggage and hold open the doors at the train station.
Shame told us it’s a cold world out there, and it’s best to keep your head low and don’t expose too much. He said nobody cares about your revelations and it was high time to get back to doing what everyone expects you to do.
Only this time I told Shame to fuck off.