Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Written following her return home to Los Angeles after eight years in Olympia, Washington, Hollywood Notebook is a beautiful collection of fragments, prose and poetry, by Wendy Ortiz — little glimpses into the author’s days, memories, plans, and dreams. It’s a work that skillfully and heartbreakingly captures a special moment in time — a talented young writer, about to take flight. It is also the story of young person enduring painful transformation in pursuit of her passions. If you’ve already endured the horror of your late twenties/early thirties — encountering all those “milestones that double as landmines,” as Ortiz writes — Hollywood Notebook is an arrow straight to the heart of themes that will resonate deeply with you. If you’re too young to know the landmines I’m referring to, stop reading here — I’d hate to ruin the surprise.
Deliberately buckshot and sprawling, Ortiz blasts many themes with incredible honesty — seduction, love, commitment, regret, aging, and loss — but Hollywood Notebook centers on several more predominant themes, which huddle closely around her inevitable transition into a committed writer and respected new voice. Although she has been a writer since she was a child, the entries that make up Hollywood Notebook were written at a time when Ortiz was experiencing the full gravitational pull of writing and coming to terms with the personality traits that both fuel her need to write and make her an exceptional writer. “… I walk around, not in a daze so much as a web that keeps me separate. You may not get my full attention. I’m listening to much more than what everyone can hear, often. I sometimes don’t notice external shifts because I’m paying attention to internal ones, invisible ones …” Of course this talent for unflinching observation can be as destructive as it is productive, and as she wrestles with how to channel such energy, Ortiz comes back time and again to the words of Sylvia Plath — finding kinship and inspiration, along with fair warning. As Ortiz quotes: “I re-create the flux and smash of the world through the small ordered word-patterns I make. I have powerful physical, intellectual and emotional forces which must have outlets, creative, or they turn into destruction and waste…”. In her relationship with Plath’s writing — and in her other relationships — we see Ortiz walking that fine line between inspired and consumed. “Staving off Sylvia Plath, as though her writing is a virus I catch, come down with. I cannot be held responsible for what happens next. She is a fever to me. I want to point my finger and have thunderbolts fire.”
In addition to her internal struggle, Hollywood Notebook captures Ortiz’s struggle with the practical realities of what it means to live as a writer. The thrill of leveling the world through her words (“I am excited by the kind of changes that accompany earthquakes”) has a formidable corollary — the rigorous routine and constant bloodletting that writing demands. We see her battling to find the time and space in which to write, after long work days and commutes. We see her dreading work for the time it steals from her writing, and living paycheck to paycheck, longing to travel or live near the ocean. “There is almost a pain about coming here. Because the ocean, close to it, is where I have always wanted to live.” The reader feels her guilt when she doesn’t get as much done as she wanted — the stacks of library books she feels guilty holding on to, the photograph she can’t find, the unfinished book that haunts her — along with peeks at her plans to find or create the environment she desperately needs in order to write. Her desire to strip away everything inconsequential is evidenced in her carefully crafted lists: “a treesit : selling everything and finally getting a van and moving to Mexico : selling everything except the laptop and cell phone and some clothes and all my writerly paraphernalia, enough to fit into a bag : … writing every day for hours upon hours…” These lists are daydreams, the very seeds of transformation, and Hollywood Notebook also contains scenes of Ortiz putting her plans into action, creating the space she needs, and clearing away distractions — even the most compelling ones. “I am calling my spirit back.”
Packed with tiny, gorgeous descriptions (“the sky shot full of stars”) and entertaining digressions (including plans for radical grrrl scout troop), the author’s skillful writing shines through her everyday thoughts. “I was no longer content with something called summer that lasted like a pittance, like a nickel thrown into a thirsty woman’s cup.” “Her guitar, and her voice, threading around my heart in the desert. Shadows on the rocks, creosote in bloom, lupine against our fingers.” I reveled in her anticipation of the seasons, which I wholeheartedly share, and the changes they bring. “Autumn is my molting. It’s conceivably the point at which I do or undo. It contains the unraveling.” We trust her strong voice through all of these fleeting moments — perhaps none more so than an excerpt of her own earlier writing, House of Earthquakes, about her mother.
While familiar California towns form a nostalgic backdrop for her journey, Ortiz makes it clear: “This is not a musing on The Mekons, or the bay area, or drinking to excess. This is a vignette on how it is that I dropped what I most loved, what I fell in love with in an attic, this two-hundred plus page story that is unfinished and rough around some of its edges, dangerously jagged in some places, waiting to be smoothed and polished by my hand once again.” Which brings us to the most important theme of Hollywood Notebook: the leap of faith. I see this book as a precious little time capsule, a snapshot of the moment when a writer decides: NOW. About to leave the security of her job, Ortiz writes with beautiful insight: “I have been walking back and forth on the diving board for a long, long time.” And later: “The last two weeks have been all about perspective, and being willing to look past the tasks … to see something grander — like seeing the black sky behind the full moon.” By the end of Hollywood Notebook, and the short period of time that it covers, the reader sees Ortiz fully commit to her craft — along with other quite serious commitments — and perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch for the reader to imagine that the neglected little work in the attic became Ortiz’s beautiful “Excavation” — or something just as lovely. But you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate Hollywood Notebook. This collection will resonate with anyone pursuing a passion, caught up in transition, or just committed to living life one true sentence at a time.