May 21, 2013 | by Michael McGrath
I’m in the market for a mentor. My qualifications? I’m educated. Some (prospective employers, Stafford Loan sharks, OKCupid algorithms) would say too educated. More importantly, I have wide shoulders and solid vision, am able to open most jars and decipher prescription fine print. I’m handy with sticky file cabinets and missing memory sticks. I can sort e-mails and convert floppy disks, screen calls from editors and exes, purchase trinkets and gadgets for departing lovers or estranged children.
Past potential mentors (professors, friends of friends, intermittent pen pals) have proved unwilling or unworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were in no position to accept or provide help, requiring their own full-blown interventions. Others had full plates—book tours, a slew of international residencies—or had already been claimed by another dedicated sycophant. One candidate of desirable vintage (tottering, affable, largely abandoned) preferred nubile female mentees. Another candidate projected an intriguing otherworldly aura. A certified genius, she was very kind but too far removed from the cynical workings of the world to offer much practical assistance. (In one dreamlike afternoon workshop, just prior to dropping another brilliant, indecipherable insight: “First, allow me to put on my human-being suit.”) Read More »
March 11, 2013 | by Michael McGrath
Smoky circles formed outside the Hynes Convention Center, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair’s central hub. The snow was light but constant. There was a consistently surprising disparity between what filled the sky and what accumulated on the ground. Cheap sunglasses doubled as ski goggles. A man in an orange wool hat aggressively bummed a cigarette while smoking a cigarette.
Across the street, in the shadow of John Mayer’s alma mater, a row of Back Bay sports bars pumped deep cuts off the American Pie 2 sound track. Inside one of them a man with pink cheeks argued with his friend over Ben Affleck’s filmography. He proclaimed Pearl Harbor to be Affleck’s best movie, then ordered another Ketel and Sprite.
Further down the bar, burlier regulars passed their snow-day or no-show shifts warily eyeing the influx of eyeglasses. One ate waffle fries with a fork. I remained neutral, drinking hard cider and picking at a dry turkey sandwich. Below us a panel talk on criticism was slowly convening in the basement. After filing the mustard from under my nails I descended the wet stairs and made a beeline for the couch, reserving a cushion with a makeshift hat-and-jacket scarecrow while I scrounged for more cider. Read More »
February 4, 2013 | by Michael McGrath
I lost my gloves at a crowded bar over the weekend. Frankly, I’m surprised my hat survived. I usually squash everything together in my jacket’s shell pouch, a crumpled ball of wool, fleece and wax, sprinkled with loose tobacco. These were not particularly warm gloves, though they were usually better than nothing.
I’ve always wanted “kid gloves,” even before I knew what they were. I must have seen an especially exquisite pair in some heavy catalogue. For whatever reason, they have always signified unimaginable luxury. I also spent a lot of energy coveting “driving slippers” and a “barn coat.” This probably had something to do with a few different schools I attended that had large packs of equestrian-minded girls and other well-appointed types. Everyone had very expensive hobbies and clothes for every occasion.
In my writing workshops I noticed that our professors fell all over themselves if you wrote stories about blue-collar work. They loved obscure types of screws and knots. They loved tools. I’m sure they enjoyed the juxtaposition between the language and the noble drudgery it described, and they may have felt a certain kinship with other forgotten craftsmen, and many of them had risen to prominence during the golden age of Carver’s hardscrabble realism, and I’m sure these stories were something of a relief from the more bellybutton-based submissions (epiphanies abroad, window-box-gardening failures, roadtrip-tested romances) received each week, but there was also a hint of that WASPy remove, the aggravating way rich people often find peace in the exclusionary pleasures of nautical terminology or expensive farming equipment. Read More »
December 12, 2012 | by Michael McGrath
In the summer of 2003, I attended a viewing party celebrating the premiere of The O.C. at my friend Diesel’s house. Specifically, in a guesthouse planted in an overgrown corner of his grandparents’ backyard. We called it the Barn, or the Sidehatch.
The Sidehatch had moldy furniture, an unreliable toilet, seashell ashtrays, and yellowed window lace. The refrigerator was noisy and warm. A thorny jungle pressed against the back windows. We sank into the spotted divan, clinked cups filled with stolen table wine and scarcely potable vodka sodas, and cheered as Ryan, the greasy angel from Chino, took up residency in the Cohen family pool house.
In dreams I occasionally confuse those two structures—the faded shingles of the Sidehatch easing to smooth, cool white—the way you might confuse a historical personality with the actor who portrayed them on film. That viewing party is a warm memory I often revisit in colder, lonelier moments, and the Sidehatch remains close to my heart, as much an unexpected salvation as Ryan’s Newport Beach.
October 17, 2012 | by Michael McGrath
The other day I found myself inadvertently multitasking. Usually I like to concentrate all of my energy on a single pursuit. That way, when I inevitably become distracted and rush off to a Coinstar machine or a matinee, it’s easier to catalogue my neglected duties. But for a string of rainy afternoons last week I was simultaneously house-sitting and ghostwriting. Ghostwriting while house-sitting: it can be done. Of course, as soon as I became conscious of the unusual efficiency of my behavior, my brain was forced to resume its usual course of professional sabotage and I spent the next few minutes staring at a gourd.
These are some of the nightmares I have while house-sitting: electrical fires that spread through the walls; dead pets; plumbing disasters; missing mail; rain-soaked packages; a sudden infestation of massive rodents. These usually torment me for the first few nights while I am still getting accustomed to the particular way the wind plays your shutters, the hum of your kitchen, the rattle of your washing machine. This passes. By Wednesday I’m wearing your bathrobe, and by Friday I’m reading up on squatter’s rights.
These are some of the nightmares I have while ghostwriting: computer failure; client failure; crumbling word counts; inadvertently contributing a pound of flesh rather than the few skin flakes I’ve allotted the project. Real writing requires buckets of blood, but you can pretty much ghost an entire memoir with a shaving nick. Expend the interest, never the principal. It’s still damaging to long-term return,s but at least you haven’t shaken down your muse.
Good ghostwriting is a bit like microwaving soup. The bowl is hot but the broth stays cold. Resurrect killed darlings and let them run wild in the purple fields. Talk about the weather. Delve into the dog’s lineage and the history of the waterbed. List the contents of the cupboard.