A Conversation with Wendy C. Ortiz
Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir, Hollywood Notebook, and Bruja. Her work has been profiled or featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Hazlitt, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, and Poor Claudia; and a year-long series appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Visit her public notebook and her website.
Kevin Catalano: It seems Wendy C. Ortiz is owning the memoir. It started with her acclaimed memoir Excavation, and was followed up by the innovative Hollywood Notebook. Now, with Bruja, a beautiful and strange “dreamoir” published by CCM Press, Ortiz is evolving the form, while transforming how readers experience language. Here is an excerpt from Bruja, which Ortiz calls “a hallway of mirrors … a labyrinth … a series of microfictions with recurring characters [and] themes”:
I gave birth to a baby girl.
I was at my mother’s house. I was dressed in a white half-slip and long-sleeved white silk shirt.
A cat asked me if I would nurse her.
I knew it was weird. I looked around. I could find a private place. I said yes.
In my childhood bedroom, I situated the cat on one breast and the little girl on the other. I called the little girl “Lupita.”
Hi Wendy. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview!
I’m most fascinated about how you conceived and wrote Bruja. Were these inspired by your journals from the time? Are some (or all) of these actual dreams? Did you go to the desert and ride the snake Jim Morrison style?
Wendy C. Ortiz: Bruja, like Hollywood Notebook, is edited text from work I was posting online, on a website gifted to me by another writer and longtime friend, Karrie Higgins. I was inspired by the section of Harper’s magazine called “Readings” (a collection of various, somewhat random, sometimes subtly thematic excerpts from things found around the printed world — it’s probably expanded by now to include the web, of course — but then it was mainly culled from print sources). One excerpt I read stayed with me (a few have over the years, I’d cut them out and keep them — ). I believe it was someone’s zine of their dream journal and yet the word ‘dream’ was never mentioned. It was written as reportage. I loved that and used the idea as a constraint when reporting dreams on my website. These are all actual dreams.
The way I started reading Bruja was that I tried to parse the actual life event from the dream, or at least to distinguish the metaphor that informed the literal. At times this made sense, but then it didn’t. Then I learned — or was taught by the writing — that I had to abandon my intellectual approach and instead experience the prose, as if I were stepping into your subconscious and observing. This line that appears toward the end of the book spoke directly to this: “She was reminding us to enjoy the sensual and even the surreal.” Do you have any preferences or suggestions for how a reader should approach this?
I love knowing what your process was when reading/integrating this book! Do you think this is also how you approach your own dreams? My hope is that a reader would indeed feel as though they’ve stepped into my subconscious for a bit. I want that from some books myself. The approach you took — which I would imagine is how people often look at their own dreams — makes complete sense to me. That said, I could imagine offering another reader another interpretation of how to approach this book: as a hallway of mirrors. As a labyrinth. As a series of microfictions with recurring characters, themes. It depends on the reader.
I read Excavation right before reading Bruja; doing so, made Bruja feel like a dreamy sequel: Jeff appears now and then, as does Nicholas and Abigail. (I should note that Hollywood Notebook, another experimental memoir from you, comes between these two.) Did you intend this to read as a kind of continuation?
I’ve wondered what a reader might take away from having read Excavation, then Bruja. I do see Excavation, Hollywood Notebook, and Bruja as a triptych. Hollywood Notebook definitely holds Excavation as its foundation — the narrator of HN is revealed to be dealing with some of the issues that get dusted up and magnified by her experiences as an adolescent. Bruja continues in that vein, but reveals how deep the people — the “characters” — , the themes, the worries, disappointments, joys, obsessions — of waking life impact her and inhabit her dreams. Pseudonyms (and in rare cases actual names) I’ve used throughout my essays (“Michael”) and books (“Nicholas,” “Abigail,” “S.,” “Sandy,” and more) appear in Bruja, over and over.
Did you make up the word dreamoir? A halfhearted search on Google suggests you might have.
When I sent my initial email to Michael J. Seidlinger, CCM publisher, with the manuscript (He asked if I had anything for him to look at, and I felt this was just the thing.), I described it as a “dreamoir.” I won’t take ownership of the word because it seems entirely possible I read it somewhere, dreamt it, or someone spoke it to me — I don’t know for sure. But I used the word to describe the manuscript bones I was handing him, and we’ve called it that ever since.
Why did you decide to write a memoir in this form? Do you feel you had to write Excavation first, which is more-or-less conventional, in order to write this dreamoir?
It was less a decision than it was a project I dedicated myself to when I posted the text online in the early to mid-00’s. When the website came down, I captured all the text just as I did with the text that would become Hollywood Notebook. I’ve always kept dream journals, whether dedicated notebooks or entries in my daily journal.
When I was a teenager, I also kept a dream journal for a while because I was fascinated with the possibility of controlling my dreams, lucid dreaming. (Since I was a socially-awkward teen, I’m sure a big part of that motivation was sexual!) Anyway, I never managed it. Have you ever had any luck with lucid dreaming?
I’ve never had the intent of controlling my dreams, though I do wish sometimes that I’d just do the thing that scares me most in a dream. Sometimes this is true in waking life, as well. I’ve read a little about lucid dreaming and have joked with faraway friends that we should lucid dream on the same night and meet up, but I have never approached it with intent. There’s still time, though.
Do you have favorite memoirs, or any that were especially influential that gave you the courage or inspiration to write Excavation, Hollywood Notebook, or Bruja?
With regard to Excavation: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and Firebird by Mark Doty.
With regard to Hollywood Notebook: any memoir-ish work by women that I read in the last 10 years that was deemed “interior” or “experimental” or “too this” or “too that.”
With regard to Bruja: no one book or memoir, but the work of Jung, and my readings in graduate psychology courses that related to dreams and dream work.
Do you have another memoir in you, or do you think you’ve already processed (or exorcised or reclaimed) what you needed to?
My intention is to (ideally) process, exorcise, or reclaim (if any of those) long before I write what might be the potential memoir. There are many, many more books I can imagine writing. One of those is about the eight years I lived in Olympia, Washington. Another is of my relationship with my mother and grandmother. I imagine writing various genre-d books about the various lives I’ve had in the last 43 years.
Do you think Sharon Olds is the ideal poet to clean a bloody gash on your foot?
If I meant something to her, yes, I think Sharon Olds would be the ideal poet to clean a bloody gash on my foot! I hold so many of her poems in my brain and heart as methods of describing what is difficult/terrifying in relationships in a way that honors the depth of the relationship without letting anyone, herself included, off the hook. One of her poems that’s stuck with me — both before I had a daughter and especially so now that I have one — is “Portrait of a Daughter” in Satan Says. The force of that poem makes me believe that if I meant something to her, yes, indeed, she’d be the ideal poet to clean my wound.
What books do you read to your daughter?
Whatever she wants, whatever children’s books float into our house, and when she forces me to, whatever I’m reading on my e-reader, which most recently was My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård. She was surprisingly attentive for a while, and when I finished a passage about nihilism, she told me I could stop reading.