The first paragraph of my autobiography

Today the vice president of my department gave everyone on our team an assignment. She usually sends a TED talk or think piece out on Fridays as “Friday Inspo,” and oftentimes we all read it, comment, and move on. But today was different: She asked us each to write the first paragraph of our autobiography.

I had two things each working simultaneous for and against me. The first is that I am relatively new to our team. Although I’ve been with the company for more than five years, I haven’t worked a job like this or with almost any of my current teammates before — so this assignment was a way of introducing myself as much as it was a way for me to learn abou teveryone I hear on weekly or daily calls.

The second was that I am a writer, and sell myself/have been sold as such, which means there’s a considerable amount of pressure to turn in something that will knock all their contact lenses out with its powerful prose and turn-of-phrase. I practice enough that I should be good at it, but I also work with incredible wordsmiths in their own (w)right, which means even more pressure was on during the four hours I spent reading the prompt, some of the paragraphs my peers were submitting, and crafting my own version.

If I was being a bit more honest about it, I might have explored my two greatest fears: The first, that I become boring. COVID has severely impacted the effort to avoid this, but between NaNoWriMo, Dungeons & Dragons, my friend launching a media business and naming me her unofficial executive producer, this blog, etc., I’m hoping that I’ll squeak by until a vaccine and solid injection of common sense make its way into the world’s populace. The second, that I become incapable of supporting myself. Daily fitness routines and smart spending are my antidotes to this one, as of today anyway.

Instead, I decided to sink fully into my reputation as an outlandishly inventive writer who’s still trying to figure out exactly who she’s supposed to be. It took a deep dive into my past writing projects (including a few key omissions), but after approvals from Cody and Hannah, I submitted this:

When I was 11, I was a teen pop sensation. Then, at 14, an identical twin with secret agent parents. Two years later, a high school student returned from the dead to settle an unfinished score, then in college a barfly conscripted into a city-wide mob war. Around 25 I became a brain-chipped assassin sprinting through abandoned Chicago streets, and two years later got a job as a press agent for a state-sanctioned superhero, accidentally killed my client, and started wearing the cape and cowl in her place. Lately I’ve been switching between voyaging the mystical seas as a half-elf haunted by demons and traversing the Wild West as a rancher’s daughter who joined a train robbery gang to avoid marrying the undertaker’s boring son. I’ve been all of these before turning 30, but I’ve never shot a gun or saved a city; never performed on stage or returned from the afterlife; never had a computer chip installed in my brain (I don’t think…) or spent much time in the western half of the U.S. And yet I’ve pulled these personas on like second skins over my own, creating complex characters on page after page, if only to avoid having to figure out my own true identity. I guess it’s time to do that here, so I’ll do it the only way I know how: Pen to paper, fingers to keys, one chapter at a time.

5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

We interrupt this broadcast…

I tried all day to think about something to write, but my head and soul is too full of resentment and grief to concoct anything creative right now. The world faces a pandemic. The U.S. faces — yet again — the realities of its inhumane roots sprouting into vines that weave throughout its so-called justice system in a way that protects people of one color at the expense of people of another.

Each night I go to bed quaking with rage at how police officers across the country seem to be given a literal get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to brutality against Black human beings. And yet this is still my very one white privilege: I have been able to finally, fitfully, find sleep. There are too many people in my life — friends, co-workers, mentors — who have not slept at all, whether because of the sub-par administration justice in Minnesota or complete flouting of it in Kentucky, or simply because they know that in this “land of the free,” a cop could walk into their home, shoot them, and never face consequences.

Tonight I’m abandoning the land of make-believe to ask my white readers to do just a few simple things. They’re simple enough to be completed over your Saturday morning coffee:

1. Sign the petition at JusticeForBreonna.org to demand that Louisville’s mayor and city council address her murder; that her murderers be fired and arrested; that new law be put into place that calls for more transparency in police misconduct investigations; and that the 911 call be released to the public.

2. Donate (if you can) to the Minnesota Freedom Fund to help them bail out protestors who have been detained by police. Or the Brooklyn Bail Fund for protesters in New York.

3. Read at least one (seriously — try just one) column or essay written by a Black person on the situation. Mass media is whitewashed, and too often we ignore important voices for famous ones. Start with Kellye Whitney’s blog post here. Then go look at the work done on Wear Your Voice magazine and other independent publications by people of color.

4. Make sure you’re registered to vote, and do your research on the local elections. The White House and Congress are crawling with vile, self-serving, racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic troglodytes who have, believe it or not, very little bearing on the legal ramifications that local cops face — that’s where those smaller elections make a much bigger impact. Ensure we cut the power to the racist undercurrent powering police organizations by voting in new attorneys general, mayors, district attorneys, city councils and governors who are actually committed to dismantling the nonspecific “systems” they’re so fond of railing against on Twitter.

5. Commit names to memory — not just the big news names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but also Tony McDade, a trans man shot by an officer in Tallahassee. Yell these names out when someone near you starts going on and on about “not all cops” and “slavery and the Civil Rights movement are over — they can shut up now.”*

*Come to think of it, buy this shirt, too.

6. Check in with your Black friends. Just ask how they are, and what people have been doing that has helped them feel better. Then do that thing.

And if just one of these is just too hard for you to do, A) stop following my blog now (seriously: I don’t need or want you as a reader), and B) refrain from doing these things:

1. Reposting videos of George Floyd’s murder. Those who feel the need to see it can find it without you also putting it on the timelines of people who don’t need to see it to know that racist police brutality exists. And the bottom line is that the videos of LaQuan McDonald being shot 16 times here in Chicago, or Eric Gardner dying while yelling “I can’t breathe” haven’t done shit to deter the cops from committing these atrocities.

2. Complaining about looting. Just once I want someone to be more appalled at the murder of Black human beings than they are at the theft of $30 table lamps from a Target. If this is you, you need to sit down and think about that for a minute.

3. Using the term “not all cops” or “not all white people.” If hearing white people being called out for the atrocities they’ve committed bothers you more than the atrocities themselves, then you didn’t think long and hard enough about #2 on this list and need to go back to your corne

I don’t get blatantly political on this blog, so just the nature of this post should say something about how important these actions are to me. A large part of our population can’t do the mere minimum — jog, sleep, walk down a street, stand on a sidewalk, relax in their own backyards — to survive without fearing that someone paid and empowered by their own tax dollars could kill them and face minimal, if any, consequences.

I’d say that’s not the America I know, but it’s exactly the America I know — I’ve just been afforded the privilege of not experiencing it first-hand. The change has to start somewhere. It might as well start with us.

Scene of the write: The last bar on the crawl

By the time we get to the final bar on our list of dives to visit on a clear but cold Saturday afternoon, none of us remember what it’s actually called. Partially this is due to four other bars that gleefully poured us shots and beers, called out the owner to give us a history of the joint, and allowed us access into their digital jukebox so we could play Celine Dionne’s “My Heart Will Go On” and all the Lizzo our liquor-loosened lips could name.

This bar is different. It’s the kind of place where, if walking in with a couple friends, you’d turn right around and leave.

The place wasn’t always a dive: The bar itself serves as the entrance to what was once a restaurant, and clearly a popular one in its heyday. Tables for two, four, six sit either in the middle of the floor or stacked on top of each other in the corner, half of them still draped in red-and-white checkered tablecloths that can be wiped down with a washcloth.

Before you can intrude on this museum, a mannequin — draped in a blanket for modesty, with a blond plastic wig and vacant, store-rejected eyes — stops you in your path. Her arms splay out like a priest’s at an alter, and before her is a brown couch that has played host to so many overnight patrons that this place might also be a B&B: Beer and bedtime.

Next to the sleep setup, you’ll notice a high top with a bag of tortilla chips and plastic tub of off-brand salsa, sitting out all day for anyone (anyone?) to munch on while they drink $3 whiskey-and-cokes and try not to think of how dirty the couch is right behind them. It’s easy to forget when you look up and see that a Svengoolie-hosted B-horror film from the 1950s is playing above the bar on a TV the size of a compact car trunk.

The date I brought with is starting to get deep in his questions for me, as if the beer and shots have made him more introspective. They’ve only made me need to pee. Again.

“So your last relationship — were you in love?” He asks.

“It was complicated,” I say, wondering if I have enough cash in my bag for another whiskey-Coke.

“Do you want to be in love again?”

The mannequin and I lock eyes.

“I don’t know,” I say. “The last time I was, it didn’t end well for either person. I learned I could be in love. He learned he couldn’t.”

“These are my roaring, roaring 20s”

He looked like John Mulaney, and I kissed him — not at midnight on New Years, but sometime around 12:38 a.m.

At least, I think he looked like John Mulaney. That could have been the gin martinis making my eyes thirstier. He was taller than me, even when I stood out like a sore toe in a thigh-high stiletto boots, and had the same long, 1940s face with the added charm of a small gap between his front teeth. Dark V-neck sweater. Clear liquor in a glass. Can of Red Bull because he asked the bartender for it. A medical degree in the works.

I though he was named Ken and from Philly, but when he gave me his number, learned he was actually named Phil and from Kentucky. Blame the gin and the number of times he twirled me around the dance floor like it was 1920, not 2020.

That’s what happens in a time machine. Through a subtle entrance sandwiched between a CVS and parking garage, down a flight of stairs, and we had slipped a century away. A big band greeted us from the main stage upon our arrival. Charlie Chaplin illuminated the library wing as a woman swung from a suspended hoop behind a popcorn vendor in plum brocade. Tasseled burlesque dancers performed behind crimson curtains in another side room. The stage was flanked by “Adults Only!” peep show nickelodeon boxes — dip your face into the viewing window and see Mae Dix slide off her stockings. Lift your face up, and three women in beaded flapper gowns might tickle your nose with their cigarette holders as they pass by, balancing delicate coupe glasses in their silk gloves.

Follow one of those women, and she was likely to lead you to the barber in a black vest and wax mustache, prepped with a straight razor and cream for any lady who’d like to get the closest leg shave imaginable while reclining in a chair in the middle of the main dancefloor. Exhibition at its finest, as the women would tilt their heads back with a smile, drop-pearl headpieces dangling in the light, as the barber ran the blade up their shins (though never past their knees).

At 1:30 a.m. the overhead lights came on, reminding us that we had rung in 2020 and had to return to the world of rideshares, drunken text messages, braggadocio Instagram posts, disposable fashion, Monster energy drinks, microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, scheduled blog posts, Netflix accounts, Venmo requests, yoga classes, allergy pills, teeth whitening, chipped nail polish, and Lululemon merchandise exchange lines. I had lost track of Phil from Kentucky — or was it Ken from Philly? — and had gained clear consciousness of the pain in my feet from five solid hours of dancing.

One 30-minute Lyft ride in a Nissan Altima, and I was home, about 10 minutes from the speakeasy supper club on a normal night, ready for the roar in my ears to subside for just a few hours so I could get some sleep and start 2020 well-rested and ready to dance the nights away all over again.

A flapper in black and pearls sits in a barber’s chair in the middle of a club dance floor as a 1920s-styled barber shaves her legs.

A flapper gets her legs shaved at Untitled Supper Club’s “Bootleggers Ball” on New Years Eve 2020

A farewell love letter written in tears and Lysol

This morning I decided to clean. I do that when I’m trying to force myself to think about things — the book I’m writing, a problem at work, what to get so-and-so for their birthday. Today it was so I could examine all of last night’s feelings now wadded up in tissues layered three-deep inside the bathroom garbage can.

The shallow layer is the fear most late-20s women fear when they find themselves having to start from scratch in finding a partner. I blame my ovaries and ticking biological clock for this one: I will be fine. My creative spirit, work ethic, long-term happiness, emotional strength, relationships, and passions will soon stand up and dust themselves off. My primal reproduction function does not believe this is important and is a finger away from dialing up a sperm bank.

Under that is betrayal: When simplifying it to the very basic core of everything, you lied to me. You let me carry on like there was nothing wrong, and you didn’t trust me enough to tell me we didn’t have a future. For a year you let me continue to fall in love with you, and never once did you warn me that my descent would end in a crash of two emails, two phone calls, and a weepy ramen noodle dinner.

And within the deepest layer lies self-anger, because in truth you didn’t lie, not even once. You told me everything from the beginning, and I refused to hear it. You told me the first night you came home with me. You took off your shirt and explained every beautiful tattoo on your skin and challenging tattoo on your soul. And then you kissed me, and I saw stars, and then we fell asleep in a cider-drunk haze before waking up to a mid-March snowstorm that failed to cool us off from one another. The next morning, and the next year, I convinced myself that if I couldn’t change your past, I could at least make your future a bit brighter.

You said I helped get you to this place you’re in now, where you’ve learned to slowly light the lamps of recovery and discovery so the dark shrinks into something less dreadful. And that’s when I learned my mistake. For the last year I’ve tried to torch the darkness, burn it all to the ground, and singed myself in the process because that’s not how it works. It has to be you wielding the matchbook, and it has to be methodical, or else you could disappear into the flames, rather than emerge in the light. If I stand around and watch, I’ll only get in your way. I love you too much to do that.

As I scrub down my dining table with Lysol, I notice that another puddle has appeared in the northwest corner of my apartment. The tenants upstairs must have left their windows open again during a rainstorm. The last time this happened, I asked the landlord to repair where the speckled plaster had crumbled, and he did. Except now that replacement plaster is on the floor in varying states of dust and chunks that I have to sweep up and add to the trash can.

Shattered plaster. Crumpled up tissues. They all look the same — not quite white, but trying to be. All the emotions that gushed out of my eyes and nose the night before, mixed with the broken shell of where I tried to secure you in my heart, convinced you’d find the light you needed inside.

That broken shell doesn’t mean you’ve left, though. You’ve just moved somewhere else inside it, and it’s going to take me some time to find you again. I’ll keep looking, but first I have some cleaning to do.

Vignette: Patrick Bateman is my neighbor

I’ve got a confession to make. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins is not on my phone.

That is why, when I woke up to the iconic bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-dum drum riff at the 3-minute-and-16-second mark at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, I knew it wasn’t my alarm waking me up. That would have been the bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-bink-beng-bum guitar of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.

A quick scan of my apartment confirmed that the poltergeist who had knocked one of my framed pictures off the wall two nights before hadn’t continued its mischief by turning my stereo on, either.

“You don’t know who this is?” slurred a voice as loud as the music. “How do you not know who this fucking is?”

Of course I knew who this was, but apparently my neighbor’s guest, a girl cackling with liquored-up laughter, didn’t, and was now enduring his wrath as he continued yelling over Phil’s echoing, ethereal eloquence.

And then — silence.

Maybe he’s murdering her with an ax, I thought during the absence of sound. Seems a high price to pay for not knowing a song, but Patrick Bateman killed over business card stock after explaining Huey Lewis and the News to Paul Allen in American Psycho, so anything’s possible.

The next morning I ran into her as she left his apartment, heels in hand and mascara dust powdering her cheeks. She had the flush of someone who had had a good night. Thank god I wasn’t awake to hear that part.

We stood waiting for the elevator, with her flipping through social media on her phone so she doesn’t have to acknowledge me. And I wasn’t going to say anything until she almost ran me over in an attempt to get into the empty elevator that had just arrived.

As we descended 20 floors, I began to whistle “In the Air Tonight.”

A letter home from Camp Dungeons & Dragons

Dear whoever,

I’m writing to you from a cozy but comfortable apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. There’s no seat back on the ottoman? piano bench? cushioned side table? that I’m sitting on, but I’ve been too busy leaning into this experience to care.

That’s a lie — my butt and back hurt — but hey, wasn’t that a great sentiment?

So far, Camp Dungeons and Dragons has been fun. Half of us is entirely new to the concept, while the other half is patiently tutoring us through character creation. Many of us have to get used to a game without limits: As a role-playing game, there’s no rules of what you can or can’t do, provided the dice roll in your favor.

At the head of the table sits our camp counselor, Kyle, the Dungeon Master himself, educating us on gameplay and character creation. Any race can be any class with any background, he explains, which means there’s near-infinite possibilities.

The nine others of us await our turn to peruse the guidebooks that will give us the details on what weapons a ranger versus rogue carries; what the differences are between green, black and red dragon-borns; how much strength versus dexterity a barbarian gets; and whether it’s more advantageous to be a sorcerer or wizard. There’s a difference, I’ve learned.

I’m Hepburn, the human barbarian who became an outlander after learning her parents, half-elves, had lied to her all her life about her identity. When they finally confessed after I couldn’t do the spells the other kids were doing, I ran away from home and wandered the land, not to be seen again until now, when I showed up with a glave, a dagger, four javelins, a staff, and what appears to be a viper fang dangling from one ear.

For a group of creatives, character creation is the easy part. It’s the math to figure out skill levels that requires us to snort lines of eraser shavings as we struggle with simple addition and multiplication.

After hours of preparation fueled by Totino’s pizza rolls, peppermint patties, carrot sticks, cheddar popcorn, beer, and a dozen Do-Rite donuts, the Dungeon Master announces it’s time to embark on our journey.

The setting: Neverwinter, a metropolis with a thriving gig economy where Gundren Rockseeker has recruited this ragtag team of wizards, humans, bird-people (“aarakocra,” campmate Alyssa calls it), halflings and demon-like tieflings to guard a caravan of food to a neighboring village. A bard styled after Orson Welles in his later years provides endless entertainment and infuriation.

Gameplay only lasts about two hours, with all of us struggling to track what kind of character each person is playing — apart from Orson, that is, as Cody is loathe to let us forget his identity — and half of us needing guidance on how to add attack bonuses, do perception checks, and determine damage points.

Our entourage takes on a group of overly amorous and jealousy-prone goblins that kidnapped Mr. Rocksucker (though I’m still not convinced this isn’t a setup on his part to get us to work for free — the gig economy is a capitalistic scam, after all). We tend to leave carnage in our wake, dropping goblins from cloud-shrouded treehouses, blasting them with poisonous gas, and even forcing their Wookiee-esque ringleader to laugh and vomit himself into submission.

By the end, my butt and back aren’t nearly as sore from my seat as my abs and chest are from laughing so hard at Katie the gruff-voiced Zorus the Tiefling, announce he is wearing “just pants,” Cody the reincarnated Orson Welles throwing a cream pie to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on our Wookiee nemesis, and one of our more mild-mannered camp mates, Mike, getting swept up into the game and yelling at Alyssa:

“What do you mean? I’m half-elf, bitch! Oh my god, I am so sorry.

Leaving camp behind is hard, but we’ll be back in September when Kyle leads us to Byssia, a chain of islands and atolls amid conflict between the “free people” and the “civilized” capital. I promise to write frequently from our waterbound adventure.

Love from camp,

Kate, aka Hepburn

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 26: The city’s ribcage

For being called “The Oculus,” it looks more like a ribcage than something that can see — especially in this February fog. Its bones splay out, opening its spine up to the sky and exposing the invisible heart that floats within. It’s the heart that holds all of the memories of what used to be in this spot before that Tuesday in September, so no wonder the ribcage is open: It’s trying to let out some of that agony.

The Oculus building stands in New York at the World Trade Center

The Oculus in New York overshadowed by a February fog.

Nonfiction: Reset, then resolve

Why do we resolve without resetting first?

It’s like painting a wall that’s been beat up over the last year with a fresh color, but neglecting to first fill in the angry gouge we made the night we realized we let someone else do the same to our self-confidence. The pin pricks that accrued quietly and subtly as a relationship deteriorated until they became a full cavity. The scattered knuckle-sized dents from when we beat ourselves up over not landing that job, not saying “no” to that cheesecake, not writing all week. It’s easier to ignore the past and try to cover it up.

To make the paint stick and the resolutions work, you need to examine every flaw and determine just how much spackle is needed to fill it in, to heal it. Sometimes you overcompensate: You see a nail hole from a poorly placed priority and glop it on, creating that a swath of stucco that has to be sanded down to get back to the true wall — the true self. Other times you have no idea just how many layers of putty are needed to heal a seemingly shallow dent from a misguided comment, so it takes a few tries. But you do it all thoroughly, and you learn as you go, and promise that next year there won’t be so much to fix.

There will be, by the way. Possibly more. But that’s next year.

Then, only then, can you start to paint with the new color: Resolve to work out more, eat better, drink less alcohol, drink more water, work harder, work smarter, work only 9 to 5, start a side business, invent something, pitch that novel, finish that screenplay, find the one, ditch the loser, spend more time with family, travel independently, read more books, surf the web less, call that friend from college, delete your Facebook. Every resolution completed is another layer of paint, but every failure is another scratch you’re already prepared to fix this time next year.