Wendy C. Ortiz holds an MA in clinical psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s a Los Angeles native who lived for eight years in Olympia, Washington before returning to Los Angeles. She lives with the love of her life and their daughter.
Wendy has read at various venues in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She is the co-founder and curator of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which was a finalist for LA Weekly’s 2013 Best of LA Readers Choice Awards.
Her poetry has appeared in Spillway, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Blood Orange Review. Her prose can be found in The New York Times, PANK, The Coachella Review, Literary Mama, Split Lip Magazine, Brain, Child, and Mutha Magazine, among other online and print publications. Most recently, her essay, “Pretty” ran in The Nervous Breakdown and “I’m on Fire” ran in Jaded Ibis Productions’ BLEED blog. She writes the monthly column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy has poetry forthcoming in Educe and Spillway.
Wendy is working on a book based on the Modern Love essay published in the New York Times and a poetry collection. Her first book, Excavation: A Memoir, will be published in summer 2014 by Future Tense Books. Her second book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in fall/winter 2014.
Wendy C. Ortiz was interviewed by Karly Little via Skype on September 14, 2013.
Karly Little: Your essay, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling” appeared in The New York Times a little over a year ago, and on your Tumblr, you say that its publication changed your life. What changes have you noticed in your life and the lives of your loved ones since your work appeared in the Modern Love column?
Wendy C. Ortiz: Big changes.
There were so many different things that happened around that piece. The biggest thing, probably, was that I suddenly was getting the attention of agents. I had two different agents contact me after that piece came out basically asking me, “So where is the book?” That’s actually one of the pieces of advice I’d give. You see articles that ask, “How do you get an agent?” I always think—the short answer is to write a Modern Love column. Agents are looking at that column all the time and contacting people. There have been several books to come out of that column. I did not have a book; I did not know that that would happen.
I had a different book, so when agents contacted me, I said, “Well, I don’t have a book based on this column yet, but I’m working on it.” And I offered them the book that I did have that was already written, the one I started in the MFA program.
Getting an email from an agent while you’re on your way to Target is a really big deal. Like, within two weeks of the essay being published. I was looking at my email while I walked into Target with my mother and my daughter and I was like, “Wait, what? Is this really happening?” And I was just floating on air the rest of the day.
I had sent queries for my book (What Is and What Should Never Be) out to agents and hadn’t gotten a bite, so things were suddenly new and exciting for me.
Another change was having something out there nationally like that. I still get emails from people who tell me what kind of impact that piece had on them. It really is a range of people, people who definitely aren’t in the same category as me, as that essay. It’s basically people who are thinking about their own situations and making big decisions dealing with the question, “What do I do in this situation where I could potentially hurt someone, but it’s important for me to move on?”
That is still pretty huge, and I feel like I’m still touched by that on a regular basis.
KL: You said when agents started calling you about your column in Modern Love, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” they asked about the memoir behind the column. Then, it wasn’t quite finished yet. Is this that memoir?
WCO: No, this isn’t that book. The book coming out in July 2014 is a memoir I began writing while in the Antioch MFA program in 2000. Excavation: A Memoir is about the four-year sexual relationship I had with my junior high teacher. It’s gone through a number of revisions—I have Bernard Cooper, Paul Lisicky, David Ulin, and Emily Rapp, among a few other readers to thank for that. I’m also grateful to Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books for taking a chance on a book that many editors said was “dark”, “complicated”, and ultimately a “difficult” book to market because of the content.
I’m still working on the book based on the ML column. It’s at about 12,000 words right now. One of the agents that had contacted me about it is working with me on it—she’s given me an open door to an agency that is not taking unsolicited manuscripts, so the relationship feels especially valuable. When I have new pages, she’s open to reading them and giving me comments. I’m hopeful I can get the book done by sometime in 2014.
KL: You’ve been publishing essays, poems, and short fiction for years now. How does it feel to know that Excavation: A Memoir, a book-length piece of yourself will be released in the summer of 2014?
WCO: It’s a bit mind-blowing to me. If I think about it for too long I get terrified. While I practice openness and a radical honesty in my writing I can be a rather private person. It was slightly excruciating to know that Kevin Sampsell, for instance, was reading the book, only because once someone reads the book, it feels like they’re suddenly privy to a strange, intimate part of my life that I’ve not delved into great detail with anyone in conversation. So this book feels like a big plunge into what, I don’t even know. And that’s the scary part. At the same time, I have a lot of support from friends, from other writers, and internally I can call up the support I need, too. The terrified part of me will walk next to the strong part of me and we’ll get through it together.
KL: Much of your writing is driven by the emotion in the details. I’m thinking of “Mix Tape,” your essay on The Nervous Breakdown. Your narrator thinks, “You’re fucking me up. I love how you’re fucking me up. But you’re fucking me up.” Another great example here would be “Listen” your essay that appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Coachella Review. Many of these events happened as long as two or three decades ago. How do you harvest these details and get to a place where you can write with the raw and recent-feeling urgency?
WCO: “Mix Tape” has some excerpts from the memoir that I have been trying to sell. This memoir has taken a good ten years for me to write from the point where it started in the MFA program. It’s gone into different versions and incarnations, but one of the main things that I used to write that memoir were journals that I’ve kept since that time. So I always am able to pull from those.
As a long-time writer, if you’re keeping journals like these, it’s pretty valuable. I wrote down conversations that happened, word-for-word. As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it. I feel like I’ve pulled a lot of detail from that period of time.
That’s part of my whole process, too: going deep into that period of time. Music is the main thing. I usually have a soundtrack playing when I’m trying to go back into a period of time. Listening to that music and getting into the old journals. I’m constantly looking back at them and reread so I get into those feelings. I feel like that’s when I’m able to pull the details out from those periods of time.
KL: Is it hard to come back to reality after going back into that time period?
WCO: It is so hard. It’s one of the hardest things, actually. I need a couple of hours to go in and get the space to listen to music and really write. Then I need some transition time to come out of it, and I don’t always have that. On a day like today, my partner takes our daughter and they go somewhere for a few hours. My job is to figure out how to build in that transition time into that time frame because if I don’t have it—obviously I can do it—it’s really hard, like dragging myself back into a reality of now.
It’s hard and you must understand how that feels to have even posed the question.
The worst-case scenario is just having to go straight back into reality and feeling like there’s something that’s left unwritten, but obviously I have to make it work. I’m a parent and that has to come first. Once my child is back, I come right back and be the parent, I’m not fifteen years old anymore. I’m not listening to Depeche Mode and in my old world anymore.
As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it.
KL: “Listen” explores the effect of time on memory; do you contact family member or friends from those years, or did you rely solely on your own memories for these essays?
WCO: I mostly rely on my memories and journals, which can be a little tricky. The journals make it easier because in the end, I’m writing about the truth that I saw at that period of time. I’ve certainly sat down and written something and then went back and looked at my journal and found that my memory was wrong. I’ve had to rewrite entire sections because my journal was telling me something totally different than my memory.
In terms of friends—I went to the same elementary and junior high and high school with a big group of people—so I definitely have a lot of friends from that period of time, but I haven’t always asked them for their feedback because I’m trying to just stay true to what was happening for me in that period of time. Once in a while, a friend will sort of illuminate something for me or remind me of something, but if I don’t physically remember it, I’m probably not going to use it providing it doesn’t somehow change the entire narrative.
My family was pretty emotionally absent for a period of time so they are not people that I would ask, “What was happening at that time? What do you remember?” They just aren’t good source material for me.
KL: Your essays employ an economy that cuts right to the core of the characters you write about. Do you begin with longer drafts and pare away extraneous words and sentences, or do you find yourself naturally writing in such concise language?
WCO: I wish that I could be more economical in my writing. I feel like I’m constantly over-writing things. I tend more toward writing really big and then having to go back in and winnow it down to something more precise. I would never have thought of my work as economical but I want it to be.
I’m learning more about editing. I think editing is a really intense process that I didn’t really know very much about until I worked with the editor at Modern Love. We would have conversations, both email and phone, and the way that he was going about editing this short piece made me suddenly realize there were all of these places under the umbrella of “editing” that I didn’t have knowledge of or employ, myself. I think that experience taught me, first of all, the job editors do is incredible. They can just go right in and start doing surgery. That’s intense. It’s hard to do that with your own work. I learned a lot just from that experience, and if I had money to just have an editor next to me all the time, I would have one. Doing that surgery on your own is so complicated, and sometimes I feel like I’m still too close to the work to perform it well.
KL: “Minutes are just seconds aren’t minutes,” your essay in Literary Mama, was lyrical enough to sing along with. How much do you find your poetry and prose informing one another since you work in both genres?
WCO: My hope is that the prose will always be informed by poetry. That piece—for the longest time—was an essay with a lot more words, and then I kept cutting it away and cutting it away. Then I had extensive edits. The editors of Literary Mama really put me through the wringer, and we edited it further and further. I would say that there were at least eight edits of it from them, which was fantastic. I don’t think that they’re getting paid to do that work, but they helped me really narrow it down and become the precise thing that it is now, which looks like a poem. And that’s how I think of it now. I had submitted it to them as an essay, and then in the end, it ended up looking like a poem. I was really happy with that.
KL: What have you read recently?
WCO: I just finished reading a book called Torpor by Chris Kraus. Chris Kraus is pretty amazing. She wrote a book called I Love Dick, and that’s what a lot of people know her for. Someone that I met on Twitter was offering to give away books if you would just pay for shipping, and she said that she would choose a random selection of books to send. I thought, “Hey, I’ll pay a few dollars to get a random selection of books.” This [Torpor] was in that box, and I’m so glad that it was because I loved it. I read it just this week. Finding time for reading, with a toddler, is very difficult. So I’m happy that I just finished it yesterday. I only had about fifteen pages left and I just kept saying, “When am I going to have time to finish the last fifteen pages?”
I’m also in the middle of reading a book by Gary Lutz called Partial List of People to Bleach. It’s a great book, it was just reprinted from Future Tense Press. It’s a book of short stories, and they’re all super weird. He does interesting things with language, and I love that kind of work. I’m into it, but I have to read that very slowly. It’s like reading a poetry book.
I’m also reading a poetry book right now, Greenhouses, Lighthouses by Tung-Hui Hu, and I never can finish a poetry book in one sitting. It can take me a month to read a poetry book. I’m usually juggling about five books at a time. I’m active on Goodreads, and I like marking how far along I am. It’s good for me. I know it goes back to when I was in second or third grade and we used to have the contests of who could read the most books. I was always in the running to win because I was constantly reading.
KL: Can you feel your work bending to reflect what you’ve read?
Sometimes I want that. Sometimes I don’t. It’s hard to sort of separate, but there are times when I’m looking for that. When I know about a piece that I’m writing, and I want it to have a certain tone, I will read the work in a tone that I know is similar to the tone that I want to have. I’ll read the work and get invested in the voice, and then some of it may rub off. And I love that. I think we all do that to some degree. I’m open to that happening.
Then there are times when I feel, “Oh, I shouldn’t be reading this right now because it’s interfering with the voice of something else I’ve been trying to work on.” That doesn’t happen to me very often though. I feel like I choose books that are somehow informing a voice that I’m trying to work with on my own.
KL: Your first book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in 2014. What has been your favorite and not-so-favorite parts of the publishing process so far?
WCO: It’s hard to say right now because we’re so early in the process and because it’s a small independent press. It’s very casual. I think that people have an expectation that for all books, you sit down, you have a contract, and you have these hard deadlines. But that is not how all independent presses work, at all.
To begin with, I sat down with the publisher, Chiwan Choi, at a bar in downtown L.A., and we just kind of talked. He told me he loved the book and what he thinks the global edit should include. He told me, “You make your own deadline. We want to publish the best work possible; it’s up to you to come up with what will work for you.” He’s super accommodating for the writers he publishes with the press and that is just a relief. I’m not being held to, “Okay, now this has to happen now. At this point in time.” I mean, I could do that, but I feel like I have more freedom this way.
Right now, at this moment, he’s received my first global edit, and I’m waiting to hear what he thinks about that. Since I sent it to him, I’ve still been working on some of the formatting and I keep going through it and through it with a fine-toothed comb. Sometimes I think, “I thought I already took the fine-toothed comb through this.” But then I see things. So I must go back in and go through it again. I feel like this is not a standard or traditional publishing process, and I can’t say that there’s anything that I don’t like yet. What I’m enjoying right now is the freedom to be able to work on it on my timeline and feeling like my publisher is really accommodating my process.
See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.
KL: After reading your poetry and prose in various online publications, I’m looking forward to the release of Hollywood Notebook. Don’t give us any spoilers, but can you tell us a little bit about it?
WCO: I had a blog from 2002 to 2005, and that blog space was given to me by Karrie Higgins, who is also an Antioch alum. She lives in Utah now and is still one of my favorite editors. When she has time, I ask her to look over my work, and it’s fantastic. I love having her as a resource and as a friend.
I was just writing this blog back then, when I was living in Hollywood, in a studio apartment. I had just moved from Olympia, Washington, back to L.A. after having lived in Olympia for eight years. I was living alone for the first time in a long time, and I was writing a lot of observations about what life was like then. I was 28 years old and just trying to figure things out, in many ways. Something really big happens when you’re 28. People will say it’s when your Saturn returns, and that could very well be what was happening then. There were certain huge things that happened between 28 and 30.
When that blog ended, I basically captured all the text into a document and that document was 365 pages long. I decided that as a project, I would edit it down into something more readable—and that made more sense—and see what happened. So I started doing that last summer and suddenly I saw, “Okay, this is a book. These are micro-chapters, and they read somewhat like prose poems.” I had a very different style of writing then and I miss that style of writing. It’s not something that is natural to me right now. Doing the edits, that’s probably the toughest part. I have to go back into that voice that I don’t feel like I have easy access to right now. That’s what that book is. It’s observations and prose poems and lists and ideas about that period of time when I was living in Hollywood alone and trying to figure things out.
KL: Do you have advice for writers who compose personal essays? Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of memories?
WCO: I don’t worry that I’ll ever run out of memories. I’m constantly writing lists. I have notebooks full of lists of random memories, and they’re just sort of signposts to go back and remember this, or go back and look in the journal at this. They can be so random and they can be so short, but it’s the way I know I’m not going to run out of memories because there are so many there.
The advice that I would give is to constantly read personal essays, all the time. See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.
Getting help from people is really, really important, too. It’s something that I feel like I have resisted a little bit. I sometimes feel like everybody’s hustling, everybody’s writing. They’re busy. But sometimes I just have to push through my feeling of resistance that I don’t want to bother someone. I have my three people who I go to. If they have time and energy, they’ll read it, and if they don’t, they’ll simply say no. And I’ll just move on. Or I’ll wait—if I don’t have a deadline—I’ll wait until they have some time, and they can look at it because I trust them that much.
The other kind of help that is important, that I was also resistant to, is actually going to a class. When you’re in an MFA program, you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, so it feels easier. When I was in it, I was getting help all the time: my mentor was helping me, my fellow writers, the workshop. But when you’re out on your own, you think, “Oh, okay. Who’s out there who can help?” So this year I decided I needed come help after getting these super nice rejections over and over. The editor would keep telling me, “I love what you’re doing, but it needs more work.” And I thought, “I keep hitting this wall with this editor. I need some help. I need professional help now.” So I actually took a class through a local writing group that offers all kinds of classes to writers. I took an essay class, and there was some part of me that said, “I can’t believe I’m taking an essay class so many years after getting my MFA.” But that was really arrogant thinking because I needed help. My essays were not working for some reason that I couldn’t see, so I wanted to repair the blind spot that I had, and thank goodness I did. I went into a class; I got some help.
The essay that came out of it was one that I had been working on. Two of my editors had looked at it, and we weren’t making it better. The finished piece that came out was the Brain, Child Magazine essay that came out this week. It was a resubmission to them. The first version I submitted, they rejected, and I took that essay to the class that I was in, worked it out, and resubmitted it to them. They accepted it.
Now I feel like I’m over my resistance. If I need professional help, I will try to get it. It’s totally worth it. I’m over it. I can ask for help.
KL: You were just announced as a McSweeney’s Column Contest honorable mention with your new column, “On the Trail of Mary Jane.” You’ll be contributing regularly to McSweeney’s. Can you tell us what to expect in this new venture?
WCO: In Los Angeles, there are many, many, many medical marijuana dispensaries, and I drive by them all the time. Sometimes they have these ridiculous names and I constantly find myself wondering, “What makes someone choose one place over another?” There are so many to choose from. NPR reported four years ago that California has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks at this point. The L.A. city council put a moratorium on opening more pharmacies and recently L.A. voters essentially confirmed that stance. Now only 135 of over 1000 dispensaries in L.A. are technically legal. I’m interested in going to both legal and illegal dispensaries. The way that I’m approaching this is as a journalist. I’m hanging out and checking things out. Who goes to these places? What are these places offering? What is the culture inside? What’s the culture right outside the front door? Each month I’ll be writing about a different dispensary with some forays into other locations—maybe a hemp convention.
KL: You’ve got your column, On the Trail of Mary Jane, running at McSweeney’s, two books slated for release in 2014, and other pieces of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction popping up in various journals and websites. How are you managing your time so you still have time to write for yourself?
WCO: My daughter, who I’m home with most days, has entered the world of imaginative play, meaning she can now occupy herself for lengths of time making up stories with her stuffed animals and plastic dinosaurs. I’m using that time as much as I can. When she naps, I’m using that time to recharge, meet deadlines, whichever needs to happen most that day. My partner makes sure I have a day most weekends when I can work on writing, and that’s priceless. I also manage to write three pages every morning—the “for myself” writing you might be referencing—because that’s just part of my routine.
KL: In your essay on the BLEED blog, run by Jaded Ibis Productions, you say, “I’ve heard a constant refrain from friends and fellow writers: You’re on fire!” One glance at your ever-growing bio proves this statement’s truth. I don’t know that there’s any other way to describe your successes over the past months and years. How’s it feel to be on fire?
WCO: The “I’m on Fire” essay is very much a work-in-progress. There’s something painful about “being on fire”—maybe the attention, which is exciting and also somewhat searing—the amount of myself that goes into the writing and then becomes its own creature and lives a life of its own—it can feel quite literally painful at times. At the same time it’s also exciting, and growing wilder day by day.