Los Angeles — I’ve been awake since 5 am local time, wired to rise on eastern time yet dragged down by the lag. This reorientation of time loosens thoughts, and they shake about in my blacked-out hotel room, curtains and blinds drawn to block the rising sun, while I think about all the tasks I need to do, to say nothing of the red-eye that awaits later tonight. This is only my second trip to LA, a memorable one precipitated by the business of art. I departed with two carry-on bags and some vague notions of what I would do when I got here, as well as two books I haven’t cracked open and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to blot out the jet engine’s drone.
I never sleep on flights, but I do nod off—I subsist on snatches of REM, little naps, a few minutes of lost consciousness before turbulence or a crick in my neck snaps my attention back to the world contoured by the tubular shape of a commercial airplane. When I landed, my work schedule left no space for jet lag; I had no time to contemplate the reoriented time. The first time I visited LA, I didn’t make a note of the airport but this time, once I disembarked after the plane sat on the tarmac for thirty minutes, I noticed all the negatives I’ve heard from people with respect to LAX. It’s no worse than, say, LaGuardia. I walked down grim corridors to greet the bustle of cars and cabs and travelers with baggage awaiting alongside curbs for rides. In shades waiting for an overpriced taxi, I realized how much I’ve come to hate the flying experience.
In my conversations over the past forty-eight hours, the word process has come up time and again, even if never uttered by the speaker, or me. In this context I’m referring to the creative process, or the process of writing, or editing, or the process of choosing books from the shelf to take with me to LA, despite, so far, refusing to read a single word. My mind is elsewhere. At dinner in West Hollywood, I was asked about how the process has changed for me since becoming an editor. As I’ve written before, I see holes, I see spots where a little bit of extra time and care can improve the work; sometimes, I see the solutions, or possibilities.
But it’s unclear if these facts speak to process, an action word whereby the person seeking to create has a plan in mind, if not a few clues and a hand stroking the wall as one walks in the dark. I’m fixated on process; maybe I wish to automate my writing, to come up with a repeatable scheme meant to duplicate past successes to avoid future failure: Process as a safe space, process as a child’s game of connect-the-dots to reveal the face of a grinning cat.
Fear of losing creativity Kendrick Lamar remarked on Damn. I fear forgetting how to do the damn thing, how to make the words move, the rhythm, the meaning. Before now I hadn’t written a word in a few weeks; the cards and the stars told my ass to be patient, and stay patient, and to be still, and stay out of my own way, and let the universe move as it will. The illusion of control I said to my client yesterday. When you let go, when you realize you have no control over the world, or people, you experience a strange relaxation, a yielding to the wind, I think of it now.
In line at JFK waiting to be scanned and patted down for the flying experience, a white man in a ball cap, jacket, and jeans—no bags—stood in front of me. We both watched the bomb-sniffing dog drop and roll, his human partner slightly annoyed by the K-9’s need for play. The man and I chuckled, amused at the sight of a dog lying down on the job, and he told me he was on his way to Colombia. I didn’t ask why. He mentioned the last time he had to fly, agents questioned him about the handgun magazine he brought along to read. I didn’t ask why. When asked, I said Los Angeles. He nodded. I love LA but people out there are so superficial. I’ve heard this before. My experiences with the citizens, the angels, suggest yes superficiality is the undercurrent but nothing compares to the self-absorption of New Yorkers, myself included, so who am I to judge.
The people here are beautiful, thin, sprinting from corner to corner in crisp workout-wear. They drive Range Rovers, and I scrambled to clean up the little coffee spilled between my legs, leaving three spots on the black leather Rover interior; it all looked so fresh, the whip, I felt as though I cursed god and called for heaven’s teardown by soiling the seat with caffeine. My white sneakers sparkled; my beard glistened; the unfettered sun twinkled off my sunglasses. I’m here on business, a fresh artist in the hills trying to make sense of process. I am an editor, a writer, and my work increasingly calls on both to synchronize, to work in concert. This is a change in process. I cannot consider these activities as separate, intersections notwithstanding, but rather as one black sphere in the sky appearing via the fusion of two.
Houses built up high and into the hills appear as watchtowers over the metropolis; we snake up and up, winding around narrow roads, as Kendrick preached sexiness through two-ton speakers amped and wired for maximum bass and burst. I am aware I should perceive my surroundings, my evolving life, with wonder, getting into all of it like a new fashion, a couture style of life, but I keep it all at a distance. Where I am, what I do, and who I know is all secondary to the work, the process. If I think about it too much, the arrogance will come out, I’ll become a monster—I fear—and revert to a state where I gather the gold raining from god to hoard, never share, whereas now, I think of my family. I am here for them as much as I am for myself, scaling heaven inside a 767 to solidify our futures. I’m preaching, forgive me, but this is how I must do it now: Speak from the heart, high up on life but bound to earth and flesh and anxiety.
Back at dinner in West Hollywood: I told the tale of two personal essays. The first essay was typical of what I usually receive to read, quite clear in the trauma revealed in vivid detail, perhaps concluding with redemption or maybe acknowledgement that additional work to heal is needed. The second essay is ostensibly about something else, maybe the news or the new Kendrick; the main thrust cracks open in places where trauma shines like polished silver, and one can see glimmers of the pain and violence the writer survived, but the essay is about something else, yet not.
The first essay crystallizes a moment in time; the second essay, less straightforward and therefore risking failure, indicates a full life lived, even if much of it remains in the background. The first essay has one process; the second essay has another; each one has value but for different reasons. I used to write the first essay; I now attempt to write the second, accepting failure when it comes, which is often.
I never know what I’m going to write until I sit down and type—a terrible way to live, I admit—besides the first sentence, if that. Listen to classic Nas. His best songs all start with his best first verses. If I know the first sentence and, more importantly, if it survives the leap from brain to screen in tact, more or less, then I remember at that moment that I remember all the moments previous when I wrote a dope first sentence that made me smile or catch the beat or ride the wave from coast-to-coast to some larger point I’m trying to make, something about process and angels, art and business, love as an action, restraint as a new form of creative freedom.