Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pretentious and Pop has a new home!

Again, yes. I hope this time, for the last time. The new home of this blog: http://laurayan.com/

Please update your bookmarks and follow the newly designed, but still same as ever: Pretentious and Pop.

(Also: now you can find all the things I've published elsewhere, on one handy page. Hire me to write for you!)

Thank you, thank you as always for reading. I'd be nothing without you.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

She Sometimes Took Reminding

Yesterday morning I went to my boxing class and this morning I woke up with pain on the side of my right hand, something that felt tender or swollen. It hurt even to hold a pen and write. When I touched it I felt the bone and tendons underneath. I had never realized how delicate a hand was, like the skeleton of a bird, something that seemed so easily broken. And yet, mummified in layers of hand wrap, tucked into the padding of a boxing glove, it became something that seemed invincible, powerful. You forget things like this, little things, when you're not paying attention.

In New York, you never run out of things to pay attention to. Today I walked around Washington Square Park, the same streets I strolled countless times before, rushing in and out of classes. It was raining, and when I looked up, the lit windows of an apartment building seemed entirely foreign, full of untold stories and possibilities. Earlier I sat in the park and watched a girl with brown curls stand next to the man with the patches of odd colored skin, the park's resident pigeon feeder. They perched on his arm and on his head and surrounded the bench around him. Occasionally, seemingly without provocation, they soared together, gray and white and brown wings flapping in formation, a synchronized dance overhead. The girl fed some of the pigeons. Maybe she was making a documentary, or simply curious, the pigeon feeder a marvelous discovery, one of those wonders of New York. Once, he had been a marvel to me too. He would always be new to someone.


I stopped blogging not only because of lack of motivation and this and that but I think something else. In the beginning I was always trying to write a narrative of my life as an ideal. A fantasy. My prose was soaked in sunset tones and shades of whimsy. Constructing an identity, a glamour that I tired of. What was left?

Non-fiction is frightening, in that you're constrained to yourself, your life, and sometimes if you're not living the things worth writing about it feels like you're failing, and most of all disappointing yourself. 

Sometimes the things that I think the most powerful are the things I'm too scared to write, even though I do write it, over and over, masked or not so masked in short stories and tones. 

Someone asked me once, after I read him a short story about torture, whether it was autobiographical. I laughed and said no. And then I thought about it, and told him, yes, it was, in the way that everything I wrote was autobiographical, in the way that almost all writing was. 

If I ever get a tattoo, it would be a small one, in script, like in one of my favorites Lucksmiths songs. On my inner wrist or maybe imprinted across a hipbone, subtle enough to maybe even miss. Fiction, the song is called. When I asked her its significance, she said she sometimes took reminding, what she wanted to be doing, whether reading it or writing. Why would I lie to you?


I spent the weekend reading. I'm reading Flapper, a non-fiction book about the 1920s. It is pure escapism, better than some novels. And I'm reading 2666, which is a different kind of escapism, a dark, dream like one, one of a landscape I don't know, one of language itself, never ending, sad, and fragmented. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing and Suffering

This morning, I woke up at the exact moment that I was shot in my dream. I was running down a hallway, and I sensed someone there with a gun, but he fired before I could raise mine. It didn't hurt. But I was tired and confused when I awoke, to the sunlight and the mild familiar walls of my room, the bloom of flowers on the table, the ritual of the day I had to start. I hate waking up. Not from lack of sleep, but because of the comfort of the bed, and the allure of my dreams. They are bizarre and extraordinary and sometimes terrible. But even with the nightmares, I'm not sure that I wake up feeling relief. Sometimes I simply want to find out what happens next.

I recently read an essay on the myth of the suffering artist. It was a lovely piece, and uplifting, and I liked the bit at the end, when he said:

If the budding writer just settled down and wrote, then he or she would become more and more who they are happy being, and might make things other people can like and feel happy about, too. Better still, the sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas and feeling foolish and lonely and scared – that's more than enough suffering to be going on with.

But I don't know, I don't know if I agree that artists don't suffer more or less than anyone else. Everyone suffers. There's heartbreak and disappointment and regret and sickness and death. And everyone feels. But not everyone feels in quite the same way. The artist, the writer's sensibility is different. I'm not sure if it's better. It's bound with narcissism, with a never ending analysis.

A writer friend said the other night that writers are the most boring people in the world because we can only talk about the things that interest us with other writers. He didn't mean talk of craft or technique or process, though those are all part of it. I think he meant this over analysis, this greedy desire, need to express something inexpressible, that the rest of the world doesn't need to make sense of. And yet, we do. I do. To make narratives, to shape ordinary incidents into precious ones. And it is not that the writer suffers a more tragic life, but that reality itself becomes more damaging. Even the most idyllic life, read in the right (or rather, wrong) way, is full of minor catastrophes. If it sounds melodramatic—well, of course it is. But it is the writer’s narrative, the narrative of the writer’s life, and the truth of that narrative has nothing to do with the external narrative of reality.

Another friend told me once that we are so good at writing sad stories, yet perhaps the real challenge is to write a joyous one. I told that to the friend who told me that writers were boring. But the fact that life goes on, exists, despite the suffering, the tragedy—that’s the joy, he said. So though we think we might be writing calamity, in fact it is the greatest joy.

I see now that there is no good way of writing this.


I’ve been reading the essays of E.B. White, whose clarity and grace astounds me. “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” he writes. The essayist must be content in his role as a second class citizen. (Funny, I always thought it was the aspiring, or the failed, novelist.) Yet his essays have the ability to transport me as much as a good novel can—maybe it’s better, because I can take solace in the knowledge that it was real. He writes about the quiet things, and when I read it I can feel it, that world frozen on the page, free to be revived.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Painting Lily's Nails

I painted someone else's nails for the first time this weekend.

I hadn't expected to--when I signed up for the New York Cares project (which told me that I would "socialize with men and women who have a history of mental illness as they pamper themselves"), I'd envisioned sitting smiling and chatting, while the residents lay in reclined chairs with facial masks on. But I guess I didn't really know anything. I was the only volunteer who showed up, and for a while I simply sat in the lobby (with its alternating orange and white walls, plastic potted plants), waiting, unsure of what I waited for. When I finally went inside, it was a room with gray tables and chairs, with a few scattered residents sitting around. No spa. 

But there were two plastic bins with bottles of nail polish, cotton balls and swaps and nail files and nail polish remover jumbled inside. And there was Lily, who sat alone at a table in a shapeless cotton dress. I had wanted to introduce myself to everyone in the room, but when I approached her she told me to sit down. It was a command. I stayed. Sometimes, when Lily spoke, it took me a few times to understand. She seemed frustrated with me--and I tried to redeem myself--Lily, like the flower? I said. That's a pretty name. 

I wasn't sure it helped. Lily asked me where I was from--and when I told her, originally China, she seemed upset, and started to yell about how that was where her checks went. I didn't understand or know how to react. I tried to talk about other things. I put on latex gloves and started to take off the small flakes of red polish left on her nails. Her nails were uneven, some long, some broken. I brought the bottles of nail polish to her table for her to pick out the colors. Though she was much older, I slowed down my words, and talked to her as I would have a child. What color do you want? She deliberated between a few. In the end she and I decided on orange for the nails and metallic blue for the tips. I wasn't even sure I could do the tips a different color--but Lily was sure, she'd done it herself, she said. 

When I took off the gloves they left a chalky powder on my hands. When I tried to dust it away it left faint outlines on my jeans and coat. I tried to remember what people did at a salon. I put hand lotion on Lily's hands and filed her nails as well as I could. Lily was from Birmingham, Alabama. Where Dr. King was from, she told me. That's wonderful, I said. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Lily asked me. I told her I didn't and she asked me a few times why not, as if I could decide. She said she had a brother (or did she say two?) and five sisters, and that she was a baby. I tried to imagine them, their lives, and whether they visited her here. Sometimes it seemed too difficult to answer her when she asked me about my life. Do you have kids? She asked me, and I laughed and told her no, I'm only 21. That's not too young, she said. Where do you work? When are you going to visit your mama? She asked me. And I told her I didn't know, and it seemed impossible to explain that the writing I did for my job was different from the writing I did for me and that there were all the logistics of vacations and airfare to figure out my next visit home. 

(When Lily noticed my ring and my phone, she asked, what's that? As if they were entirely alien objects from another world.)

I painted her nails--the nail first, then the tips, with increasing confidence as I went on. It was easier to paint someone else's nails. She scrutinized each finger after I finished. Not too much, she reminded me, often. I promised that I wouldn't put on too much. I was surprised by how nice they turned out, vibrant and bright. 

She asked for another coat, but I didn't trust myself to not ruin the distinct colors. I always made a mess with my own nails, I was amazed I could do it at all. Besides, it was time to go. When I told her goodbye, Lily asked for my name again. I hope you come again, she said. And I was surprised. She said it in the same tone she delivered everything else, in a way that sounded angry. I hope I do too, I told her. 

After, I went for a long walk through the Northern part of Central Park, in the beautiful spring sunshine. There were cherry blossoms and smiling dogs and orange breasted birds in the park. I watched ducks dive, feet skywards, bills pecking for food in the muddy stream.    I thought about Lily. How little we understood of each other, and how I did want to return and see her again. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spring Awakening (Let's Try This Again)

photo via
You'll have to take my word for it, but yesterday I wrote a lovely thoughtful post that got eaten up by the great technology machine--or my own failure to save properly. Today I'm feeling rather less eloquent...although I can still remember what I tried to write. Something about how I worry that blogging is a little scary when I write about myself, the fictive non-fiction of my life, revealing things that perhaps should not be revealed. Something about spring--the sunshine, bare legs, possibilities, and yet disappointment too, for the next great season I'll look forward is fall, and that's so far away. Something about needing a project and fearing boredom, that worse than pain and suffering and sadness I dread that empty lack of feeling, which creeps in between the hours and drags between the sheets and slowly, suffocates.

Today, of course, things are different. I went on a long walk, for one thing, which never fails to lift my spirits. The other thing is that I feel grateful, which is one of the best feelings in the world, and I am relieved that, despite doubts and certain sleepless nights, my complicated attraction towards tragedy and sadness, mostly my life is something to marvel at. And if any part of it isn't, then it's my own doing, and it's up to me to change.


I guess what I'm trying to say is that, these days, I am listening to happier songs. And I sing along, and try--very, very hard, to not talk myself out of it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Glimpses of New York...A Life in Instagram

This is a bit of a cheat, as it's a belated post I never got around to posting...and life has gone on quite a while since then, with quite a few more Instagram photos, but at least it's a start in what will likely be a series of glimpses of life through Instagram. Are you on Instagram (I'm lameep)? 
Left to right: a charming West Village street, a cafe to sit and writer, the novel in progress, and fall in Washington Square Park. 
One of my favorite places in New York: Bryan Park and the grand library there. 
New York nights...red nails and fur, mesmerizing skylines.