Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
In Search of Lost Time
I found it. (It was buried in my office, along with alternate versions of myself.)
Alert the media: In mid-June I cleaned out my home office, which I hadn’t used for writing since I finished revisions on my book, some time in early 2022.
After the pandemic disrupted everything in March 2020—forcing me to begrudgingly close the writers’ co-working space where for three years I’d spent my workdays—I created a somewhat useful system: editing was to be done at the dining room table, creative writing upstairs in my office.
I hadn’t used my office in over a year because it had gotten to be a terrible mess, strewn with too many papers and books and magazines, all of which I found difficult to sort through, especially last winter when I was deeply depressed. I struggled to make simple decisions regarding the many things that arrived in the mail (I get a lot of books sent to me), or that I’d printed out. Toss? Keep? On which shelf? Will I ever devise a shelving system? What’s wrong with me that I don’t have any kind of shelving system? So I didn’t make any decisions, and just kept stacking things up, first in neat piles, then in lopsided ones on top of those until every surface held an indiscriminate Jenga tower of crap threatening to collapse.
Merely entering the room I was confronted with a million choices, torture when you’re a state of emotional inertia, so I preferred to keep out. How could I be creative in a cluttered room shouting so many questions at me? I wasn’t in any condition to be creative, anyway. But because my office contains one of my two closets, the one filled with the clothes and shoes I wear most often, I had to buck up and venture in there every day.
The closet was a disaster, too, filled with clothes I no longer liked, some of which were moth-bitten, others of which smelled rancid from the year (maybe 2019?) I got the brilliant idea to aggressively moisturize with massage oil in fall and winter, not realizing how absorbent most fabrics are, and how hard it is to remove oils from them, even when you wash them regularly—even when you wash them again with Lestoil, which just adds its own layer of offensive fragrance on top of the rancid oil smell.
For weeks I merely talked about cleaning out the room and the closet. Then Brian asked if I’d swap the large coffee table in my office with the small one in his makeshift recording studio in our attic. It was a reasonable request, especially since the coffee table was way too big for my room—it practically ate up the whole space. Finally, I stopped talking and started cleaning, a little each day for about a week.
I filled a massive contractor bag with the most wearable old clothes and dropped them at People’s Place; a large recycling bag with papers; and nine shopping bags with books, which I got Jessica Dupont from Half Moon Books—a great used bookseller here in Kingston—to pick up.
Once I let go of all that stuff, I was able to unearth some cool mementos from my past that I haven’t seen in years, in some cases decades. Actually, they’re more than mementos; they’re markers of other paths I’d started down and abandoned.
Having seen Barbie last week, I’m inclined to think of it this way: In rummaging through my writing room, aka Sari’s Dream House, I excavated different versions of myself who never got fully developed, namely Singer-Songwriter Sari, Filmmaker Sari, and MFA in Fiction Sari. Please allow me to introduce you to them…
MFA in Fiction Sari
I’ve written a lot about my dabbling in, and ultimately dropping out of, two MFA programs in the early 90s. Ultimately I couldn’t afford the tuition, nor the time, while working full-time as a reporter. I still vacillate between regret that I never went further with it, and feeling relieved I never let myself go into that kind of debt.
Cleaning out my office I came upon my acceptance letter to Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program, which I dropped out of after one expensive semester; my ID card from the City College program I tried next, which I dropped out of after two semesters, part-time; and an early draft of the novel chapter that got me into both. (The draft is so old, it’s printed on dot matrix paper.)
Filmmaker Sari and Singer-Songwriter Sari
I offered a glimpse of both Filmmaker Sari and Singer Sari in a recent post about Confessions of a Closet Vocalist, the documentary/mockumentary/web series I’ll probably never actually make, but which I clearly had much more of an intention of creating back in the early aughts, when I briefly studied digital filmmaking at a place on the Bowery called DV Dojo. It was interesting and a little surprising to find evidence of that in my office, including scene-by-scene breakdowns.
But I realize now that I’d left out the Songwriter part of Singer-Songwriter Sari.
All my life I’ve heard music and lyrics in my head. When I was a small child, my singer dad would notice me singing melodies to myself, and ask, “What is that?” “I don’t know,” I’d reply. “I just made it up.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2001, when I was going through a terrible breakup. Suddenly my brain was exploding with music and lyrics. Often they would come to me as I was jogging through the East River Park. I started bringing quarters along on my runs so that I could call my number from a payphone by the river, and sing what I was hearing into my answering machine. (Snippets of music still interrupt my thoughts all the time, only now I capture them by singing into my iPhone voice recording app. I’ve collected so many of them. Sometimes it’s inspiring, like, “I have music to make more songs out of!” Sometimes it’s demoralizing, like, “More music I’m going to do nothing with??? What a waste.”)
Over the next two years or so, I took the various fragments that had come to me and wrote a record’s worth of songs, a project I called “The La La Tapes,” named for all the times I sang la-la-la-la-la into a payphone. I put the songs together using the piano in my apartment. They needed work for sure, but I think they were decent, especially given that they were written by someone with zero songwriting experience. With hopes of improving them, I bought a cheap guitar, took lessons from a friend, and signed up for an adult-ed course at The New School called “Music Theory for Songwriters.”
I loved that class. I hoped it would help me write songs with deliberate intention, rather than just trying to get down the melodies and choruses and bridges that flashed into my brain out of nowhere. I also loved the convergence of math and art. For an artsy weirdo, I was always surprisingly into math and science, and did well in them at school. I often think of sentences as equations, puzzles to solve, and I think of music composition similarly. For me, that aspect adds a layer of fun.
When I met my husband Brian in 2003, we started recording my songs. Funny—the songs on “The La La Tapes” were mostly about my relationship and breakup with a guy I gave the name “Chris” in my book, and Brian was working on a record about a breakup of his own. We helped each other out, recording songs for both records together, each of us playing instruments on, and adding harmonies to the other’s. Neither of us minded that we were singing about someone else we’d been in love with, whose absence still stung. It was very freeing.
And then I don’t know what happened. Life interfered, I guess. My work as an essayist and memoirist, and my day jobs as a journalist, ghostwriter, editor, and teacher, dominated my thoughts and time. Brian and I continued to make music together, but around 2013 shifted to something less creatively demanding than working on our own original music: we learned how to play ukulele and started performing old standards together.
Currently, I’m trying to get Brian to finally finish that record about the breakup he went through, in, oh, 1994…? But who am I to talk, given that I have not made any more progress on mine?
Speaking of my 2001 breakup, in cleaning out my office, I also unearthed a song list from a mixtape I’d made for ‘ol “Chris”—like, an actual cassette tape—and also one of those letters-you-write-but-never-send, where you really let ‘er rip.
Here’s the 2023 version of that “mixtape,” a Spotify playlist:
Childhood Playwright Sari (and apparently also Child Illustrator Sari, Composer Sari, and Clothing Designer Sari)
I also unearthed a play I wrote when I was 11, skewering the rich ladies in the area.
Advice Columnist Sari
Jesus Christ. How many alternate versions of me were there buried in that room? It turns out that in 2006 I trademarked The East Village Yenta™ when I was planning to launch a dating advice column. ( Turns out I also copyrighted my songs around the same time. I can’t remember what made me suddenly protect my work.) I’d also commissioned Brian’s nephew, Ben Schikowitz, to make a drawing of me for the column.
(Even More) Tattooed Sari
I’ve also written before about my tattoos. In digging through my office, I found a temporary tattoo I never made permanent.
Once my office was nice and tidy, I was able to write in there again. I had two assignments, one for a new magazine, another for an anthology. I used a different kind of timepiece to help me—a tomato-shaped timer Brian bought me after hearing me talk at my book launch about using the Pomodoro Technique. (That thing is loud. Mostly I use my iPhone timer instead.)
Watch Collector Sari
More broken old watches! And I know there are many more elsewhere in this house. Clearly this weird hobby of mine deserves its own essay.
Maybe that will be my next post…