With Fire in Her Heart
HAVING PUBLISHED two acclaimed memoirs in the space of a year, Wendy C. Ortiz is establishing herself as a powerful voice in the literary community. Her first book, Excavation, was an original narrative of sexual awakening, notable for Ortiz’s exploration of her own agency and desire as a teenager drawn to the seductive manipulations of her English teacher. The voice of the older, wiser narrator in Excavation is compassionate, balanced, firmly feminist.
It took Ortiz over a decade to write and publish Excavation. Hot on the heels of that groundbreaker comes Hollywood Notebook, a chronicle of Ortiz’s early 30s in Los Angeles, as she struggles to make a living for herself as a writer. Lifted from her journals, Hollywood Notebook reads like a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Excavation. With regular references to the writing of that memoir, Ortiz bears witness to the writerly process: the habitual return to the page, the blocked days, the boredom, the lightning flashes of inspiration, the oscillation between passion and doubt typical of any work in progress. In the midst of Ortiz’s intense hypergraphia, she wavers in her faith in the story she’s writing, not always certain it should see the light of day. Readers of Excavation will recognize the references to it and be grateful she stuck with the process.
Hollywood Notebook stands on its own, though, and enjoyment of these fragmentary passages is not at all dependent on acquaintance with Ortiz’s prior publications. Readers who like their heroines scrappy and their prose lyrical will delight in Hollywood Notebook’s intimate descriptions of a restless mind at work:
I’m a writer like so many other unknown writers all over this city. I have ordinary concerns, like paying rent on an apartment in Hollywood, the merry-go-round of moving my car twice a week for street cleaning, riding the Metro five days out of seven to a job, wondering about love and obsessing about sex and publishing and what will happen next.
Young woman moves to the big city to “make it” as an artist — it’s a classic Bildungsroman. Hollywood Notebook’s narrator worries, in these frantic, disparate journal entries, about rent, overdue library books, joblessness, and the lack of cold running tap water. In an evocative observation on the first page, Ortiz entertains “thoughts of turning the oven on, slipping the last cut of bread inside, butter melting on its white crispy pores.” Such casual asides accumulate into a convincing and realistic portrait of a struggling artist in a city packed to the hilt with one’s own desperate kind. You can hear the growl of the Metro bus on every page, feel the squeak of the Naugahyde chair, and smell the cigarette smoke. Each tenderly wrought detail evokes the crackling sense of wonder we feel as young adults when the world appears pregnant with possibility and dread.
The memoir is plotless, almost picaresque, in its quotidian observations of life in a metropolis. Some of the passages take on a drifting, wandering quality, but there’s an electric undertow to Ortiz’s narrations of the daily grind. Behind the lists of items in her room, the recording of meals eaten and items purchased, there pulses a magnetic passion, evident in passages like this one:
The story of where your mind will go when you are on the verge of collapsing in on yourself, the story of true, deep forgiveness, but mostly this: the story of deciding finally, that if you cannot go up, then you must go down, deeper, into the dark, into the place you have always been coached, scolded and warned to avoid. For many it’s that place you imagine you will go to and never return from, a place of suffering and the end. And it is there, in that place, that you find your way out.
The cadences of the sentences sometimes rollick like waves and sometimes jump in a sharp staccato: a cluster of short declarative sentences will be followed by a lyrical meditation on pain, written in second-person. Fragments interrupt run-ons. She makes no effort to explain any narrative. We are given an expositionless dream world of friends, lovers, illicit affairs, exes, and comrades in arms. These characters wind in and out of the pages, and we are left to infer or just imagine their emotional histories with the narrator. Very few people are referred to by more than their first initial. Keeping the characters straight is unnecessary. They orbit Ortiz’s life and its singular purpose: creation. Read Rest of LA Review of Books Article Here