Billy Manes is Editor-in-Chief of Watermark Publishing Group . Follow our weekly excerpts of a draft of his autobiography, Yesterday is Dead: Life and Men and Death and Love.
We originally wrote about Billy Manes here.
by Billy Manes
“What are you going to be working on?”
That was the gut-punch introduction that seemed to permeate the room as we noshed on a specially prepared white bean soup and a salad that teetered the palate with sliced apples and a balsamic vinaigrette. It was the first night at my ill-deserved residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, and my gut, though nonexistent physically, was ripe for attack. Well, to call it a gut punch is certainly not fair in the broader brushes, but in my mind – my wandering jukebox of mislabeled curios, random events, cut-out bin third singles from long disbanded pop acts (or some that are still together!) – it was the punch I had been avoiding.
Around me were true artists pursuing true art forms, many pieces they had already outlined – a classical composer here for his third time working on a new piece, a lot of Rhode Island (I mean, a LOT of Rhode Island) talk about art forms (“Industrial design at first, but I didn’t want to be stuck making tiny plastic things that were built to be replaced,” someone said in the car on the way into the mountains); a memoirist from Alaska working on a sequel to her previous memoir (she passed me a handwritten note in the first week that felt like a warm blanket; even read it to me), a choreographer and her dancer, a performance artist, more writers, more writers, more writers. Oh, and someone working on underwater photography named Jeremiah, which was a bullfrog for me to not invoke, but a kind soul. Everyone with a Masters degree, everyone spilling over with purpose. Or at least seeming to.
“Join the club. You won’t be the only person here who thinks that they are a fraud,” a kind woman named Jamie confided in me before discussing her purpose for temporarily residing at such a prestigious peak in the mountain that made us feel like “the chosen,” as she said. We’d be here in Woodside for a month. She is likely going to be working on a cultural/musical anthropology on video of Puerto Rican “bomba” music as it pertains to (and Puerto Ricans resent sometimes) its African heritage, though she’s never even made a film. “They just told me to do it,” she said of her friends in the community; meaning that she, a self-described “Chicago Jew,” was the only one who could, or would, take the time.
“A hyperbolic memoir that blends fact with some element of protective fiction,” is about all I could muster in fast-talk response to polite inquiries from the others, one of whom said something very similar about fact and fiction just before my indigestive genius plopped out on the table. Always on the outside, then. But certainly fascinated by the inside enough to make distracting jokes at the solid table for a rise of laughter. At the very least, I said out loud for no reason other than nerves, I’m here for comic relief.
But that’s not really the relief I’m seeking with this writing exercise. I’m not here to spit-take a watermelon smash over a political shrine any more than I am to peel demons down from the walls of nightmares that I have – though many of them are pretty funny, like last night’s manic mash-up between Shakespeare and Joyce DeWitt’s Janet on Three’s Company. There were a lot of brick cubby holes involved, and maybe some overacting.
Staring over the mountain vista from my remarkable studio, where all the green eventually bleeds into a blue – and then another blue, because I swear, the body of water on the other side is an optical illusion, a Fleetwood Mac mirage, something I could touch if my arms were actually ten miles long because it FEELS so close but almost too high – it’s the uncertainty of a horizon that makes my gut relax a little bit.
Maybe that’s what I’m really here for: the misperceptions of physics and distance, the confusion of life’s poorly drawn angles, the catharsis of relative seclusion and the water in the distance. Also, I’m here to write. About life. About stories – some true, some drawn in hi-lighter pens (like my hair at present) to illuminate universalities and graphic lessons learned from love and loss.
Before coming to Djerassi, I married a man, my husband Tony Mauss. It altered what my shin-scraping intentions of Plath-itudes while isolated were going to be. Because, just like this horizon at sunrise I’m currently enjoying, things aren’t always what they seem. I often cringe – like while planning my recent nuptials – at the whole, “Things will take care of themselves; it will all work out,” mantra employed by those who don’t really want to be bothered. Well, things don’t. But, if you keep your eyes open – or relatively open, depending on your liquor consumption – things do change, and sometimes it’s for the better.