GLCL Digital Fundraiser

Flier - GLCL digital fundraiser

In January 2016 I started working as Director of Development for the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, a non-profit Writers’ Center dedicated to encouraging, promoting, and celebrating the craft of writing, the endeavors of writers, and the importance of the literary arts in the communities of the Great Lakes region.

I love this organization, this position. I love being able to help people discover the joys of writing, help them discover writers, new things to read.

However, we are a nonprofit, and we exist only with help from the public. That’s why through Saturday, April 23, I’m hosting a mini digital fundraiser. Our goal: $1,000 to be raised completely online. All proceeds will go to fund GLCL’s operational support, as well as projects and programs new and returning. (And we have some amazing things coming up—residencies, awards, manuscript consultations, panels…you name it.) These donations go towards keeping our doors open, making us space for writers, to bring in people who may not get to learn about writing and the importance of it otherwise.

What I’m asking from people—strangers, family and friends alike—is that even if you don’t live in the Grand Rapids/Great Lakes Region, to be a good literary citizen and help us out. Literally any amount helps—even $1. All supporters, too, will get added to our donor directory.

So, please: Give what you can. Help us out. Tell your friends. This is important and necessary and vital for our existence. Thanks in advance for your support!

And if you want to know more about the GLCL, we live here:


Essay: Infinite Ocean

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others, in this, my series of micro-essays:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold
All the Boys and Girls


I don’t come from a family of water-lovers. My dad can’t swim, is terrified of the open water, and my mom, even when I was a kid—bless her—refused to get her hair wet at the lake and would send her sister, my aunt, in to play with us instead. But this never stopped me: I took swim lessons when I was a kid, was on an intramural swim team in elementary school, played water polo on the high school team and swam for one season, too. And I was spoiled, when I was younger: I grew up thirty minutes from Lake Michigan, a fresh water sea with no sharks, no predators (but a dangerous undertow in parts, yes), so I’d go on weekends with friends, wade out as far as I could, feel the velvety sand lake floor on my feet, and play in it for hours. Even now, I love the water: I love how it feels, I love the mystery of it, I love feeling so small being in it. Some of my absolute favorite memories from trips I’ve had are being in the water, watching, from my vantage, the beach, the scenery, bobbing there in the waves, a voyeur watching that mysterious land, studying it, its people.

The summer after my senior year in high school, the last summer before college, all I could think about was saving money. My job at Subway wasn’t cutting it, and a friend from church who worked as an assistant manager at a boating store—a popular brand of chain boating stores—said they were looking for someone. I applied, and although my family did not have a boat—and I had only been on paddle boats up to that point in my life—I was hired…as a cashier. That was my job—that’s it. Cashier. There was a quiet dignity, I thought. Stand there, check people out, make nearly $10 an hour (which, in the late ‘90s, was H-U-G-E). Enjoy the summer, get ready for college.

Most of my early days were spent watching the Nicole Kidman/Billy Zane/Sam Neil thriller Dead Calm on the VHS/TV combo that was supposed to be used to play a loop cassette of a boat wax commercial. Most days…it was dead, just me and a manager working, and when the cool manager was working, my friend from church, this is what we did. But, you see, boating stores are weird like that: You don’t get a lot of customers every day, but the ones that do come in end up buying sonar for fishing or night vision goggles (no idea why, but we had a huge collection of them), boat shoes, polish, you name it…and it added up quick. And, as summer pressed on, my solitude changed: As the weather got nicer, more boating-friendly, we became busier. What didn’t change, though, was the staff: it was still a small store, and unless it was a Saturday or Sunday, it was just me and a manager working. And that’s when trouble started.

Boaters would come in, almost always precipitous and harried as if this was their natural state, and me, up at the cashier, plunked right up front, was the first person they saw. This was fine. This was part of the job, and I knew this. They’d ask what aisle the wax was in (such a popular item, boat wax!), and I’d smile, and point them to it. Shoes, gear? No problem. Line (not ropenever rope)—I got this. But then, it changed: “Say, guy, I have a 24’ Glassmaster 244 Cruiser…and I’m wondering if you can show me the spark plugs and tell me which ones to get. I need to get this thing fixed pronto.”

Now, sure, there was a big yellow-page-sized book in the back that you could look up boat models and makes, find out what goes with what, and I could suss that out, sure, but I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t…my job, I thought. At first, when this started happening, I could pawn the customer off on my boss, whoever else was working. They’d know what to do without having to look it up. But when a rash of people would come in, all looking to me as some sort of expert (after all, I did work at a boating store!), I HAD to play along. At first I played up my ignorance: “I’m sorry, I don’t really know boats. I’m just the cashier.” But eventually that wasn’t good enough. Impatient boaters needed to get that ONE item so they could get back on the water, and I was standing in the way of that happening. So, I had to learn to play along. I had to become one of them.

So, I invented a fake history for my family—we were now a family of boaters who loved the water, loved everything about it. We were a boating family with a 30’ cabin cruiser of some kind—I don’t recall which…Arrowcat, maybe? Crownline? Chris Craft?—and we, gleefully, went to Lake Michigan on weekends and hung out and sunned ourselves and laughed together and lived the perfect life. (This pretend life was much better than we actually were, a dysfunctional family who didn’t really like spending time together, a family that had grown apart in so many ways.)

But it worked. Boaters began to trust me. It made my job easier. I went from getting side-eyed stares from my bosses (who, I think, didn’t actually like me), and stink-eye from the customers (Look at this non-boater who has infiltrated our realm!) to being king of the store. I would tell them what wax my family used, what shoes we wore, tell them about a vacation we took, and they took me into their fold: they told me jokes, anecdotes, gave me their names, their family’s names. They made me one of their own.

I hardly remember any of that now, any of my fake history. I do remember how easily I slipped out of it after that blur of a summer, back to my non-boating life. When I got to college I so easily left it all behind, the fake stuff, the hard stuff, to reinvent myself again—truer, this time, the real Rob for the first time, clawed out of West Michigan. It wasn’t the worst job I ever had, not by a long shot (looking at you, janitor job at the residence hall), but it was the strangest. I had never before been made to feel like I didn’t belong. I had never before been made to feel like I wasn’t good enough. That was what stuck with me—even to this day, all these years later: I still feel the need to prove myself, that I’m a good enough writer, publisher, editor, a good enough human being. I probably always will, too. Maybe this was part of my personality all along—brought out by a strange and odd lifestyle choice I still find utterly fascinating. Now, though, I’m comfortable with who I am, with who I’ve become, and I don’t invent histories any longer, I don’t gloss over the hard parts of life that are needed, I think, to understand where you’ve come from and where you need to go. But, if I’m being completely honest, a part of me will always be that awkward 18 year-old kid, eyes bugged out, palms sweating, listening to someone prattle on about their outboard motor, the cracks in their hull, the fishing trip they’re planning two weeks out, trying to get these people, these strangers, to like me.

Film, Thoughts: The Witch

There are a thousand different ways to read and interpret this film: religious, feminist, historical, or, as the sub-title of the film flat-out says, just as a folk-tale. But, no matter how you come away from this film and what it makes you think about, it is one of the finest, tensest, most masterful films I’ve seen in years.


I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, because, really, the marketing folks have done an A+ job of not giving too much of the story away, which is commendable, to be sure, and I think going in fresh, experiencing everything director Robert Eggers throws at you, is to your best interest. But, I will say this: I’m drawn to films about isolation, especially when it deals with landscape (books, too, really)—how do we interact with, survive, in some instances, in these types of places? What does it do to us? Can we see the beauty of an un-tampered-with forest? Or is it bleak, frightening, a place to never set foot in?—and this film is a masterclass in dealing with these issues.

But more than that, this movie is deeply unsettling, not in a “horror” way (in fact, I’d be more comfortable calling this a period psychological thriller, rather than a horror film). Puritans are an interesting case study, to be sure, believing America was a gift of god—the Promised Land—and believing every bump, every owl’s hoot, was some demon come to test them (or worst). And that is, probably, how this movie achieves this level of unease, start to finish, that I can’t compare to any other film: we meet these fanatical puritans from the get-go, too fanatical, even, for their own community, and we understand then it’s an us-vs-them mentality consisting, literally, of this new world against them. It makes it easy to be in their shoes, then, narratively-speaking, and we’re on edge alongside them. You see the surrounding forests near their homestead, and at first, you think, my god, beautiful (because, really, the cinematography is gorgeous), but then, quite instantaneously, we feel dread the way they feel dread. It’s a genius bit of filmmaking in that way, a miraculous way to get us to care about these characters and to indoctrinate us to their plight.

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In addition, there are a lot of very interesting questions this film doles out regarding our relationship to nature even now; we feel as if we can tame it but never quite can—something always happens to remind us that Mother Nature is, indeed, in charge.

Regardless, this is a beautiful film. I understand the need to market this as horror in order to get people in the seats, but I don’t think that’s correct here. This is a period piece, a piece about a family, their struggles with an oppressive religion that offers very little actual insight into the world, and how they learn to deal with this new landscape as it pushes back. There are a lot of exciting films coming out in 2016, to be sure, but I’m finding it hard to believe there’s going to be one as exciting, as well made, as The Witch.

My score: 5 out of 5 nefarious rabbits




Essay: All the Boys and Girls

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold


Or: Those Puppet Years

His name was Toby.

He had soft electric blue hair, yellow felt skin, and googly eyes. Toby was, yes, a puppet. I was at church—Sunday School—and in each of the rooms off the main hall there were groups waiting for students. The idea was that we would find a group (choir, volunteering for kitchen duty, etc.) to invest our time in. I was nine or ten, and I hated this idea: I already had to go to church for Mid-week classes (our version of Catechism), Sunday School, and church…and that was enough. But then I wandered into a room filled with puppets of all sizes, shapes, types. And, having grown up with the Muppets, with everything Jim Henson, I was hooked.

Puppets—a Puppet Ministry, they called it—was a new idea for my church. The Youth Group wanted a way to reach out to more people, more students, especially, not just in our church, but in churches throughout Michigan and the Midwest. And, as a kid who was really sheltered, the thought of going to some other church, meeting other kids who didn’t go to the same school as me—that new blood I found so mysterious and alluring—I was hysterically excited. Plus, it would get me out of going to church a couple Sundays a month for performances, so that was pretty swell, too.

My folks loved this, the idea of me being involved with the church, and they didn’t, always, go with me on overnight trips where we’d be touring, which I thought was very adult and absurdly cool. I was fast approaching the end of elementary school, excited to start middle school, excited to, eventually, be a teenager, and I was coming out of my shell a bit. (Just a bit.) And this Puppet Ministry was a chance to get out, to see other, new places, and to have a bit of independence, too. See, I joke—often—that any awkwardness I exude around other people, any self-perceived weirdness, is my latent Lutheranism rearing its head. But, I’ve come to realize it isn’t really a joke. I don’t consider myself an awkward person—prone to awkwardness, absolutely—but there is a genuine shyness that, I think, has to do with being from the Midwest and growing up Lutheran. And, even then, I recognized that I wanted more from life, so puppets, doing this, of all things…I saw it as a way to embrace what was churning inside me. And getting to hang out with church friends, a really hip Youth Pastor I greatly admired, travel around…an emphatic yes yes yes.


Here’s how the Puppet Ministry worked—what we did: We had puppets that we bought, all sorts of humans and animals and vegetables and angels, and a Jesus puppet, too, of course, and we would get these pre-recorded skit tapes and songs, all with Christian themes. We had this massive stage built with PVC pipe and thick black curtains; this was the performance area, which we had to assemble and disassemble before and after every performance. The puppeteers would enter from this little enclosed area from the back, through a slit in the curtain like we were going on some grand (hidden) stage, and we’d sit or kneel, put the puppets up so they appeared waist-high above the curtain (they had no lower halves, anyway), and then motion and mouth and move along to the recording.

And it was hard. Really.

It took a lot of practice to be good, to not just flap the puppet’s head so it looked like it a seesaw. (The key is to move just your thumb, snuggly fitted in the puppet’s lower jaw, keeping the top part of the hand, and by extension the head, as still as possible, to mimic the way we talk in real life. And, while this is going on, your other hand is responsible for articulating two metal rods attached to the puppet’s wrists, attempting any sort of realistic/feasible hand movements.) And, for whatever reason, I was born to do this. I could keep my arm up the longest, had the best rhythm, gesticulated the best, and my enthusiasm was unparalleled. I remember, in 7th Grade, maybe late 6th Grade, when they promoted me to Lead Puppeteer. I thought, Yeah, I deserve this. I had worked hard, and no one could puppet the way I could puppet. I even got to be the sole puppeteer of Gerbert.*

*Gerbert is basically the Christian version of Kermit the Frog, an orange-skinned and lemon-headed child in a baseball cap with a squirting, halting voice that hands down religious life lessons. He was famous (maybe still is?), had a TV show, and, again, we’d buy tapes with his skits and songs, had an official Gerbert puppet, too, and would perform these wherever we went. And, no joke: kids worshiped him. They cheered for Gerbert when he popped up, and me, being behind the curtain, hand in Gerbert, ate it up. After all…he was me. Those cheers, then, were for me, too.

We’d practice a couple nights per week, every week. My dad, an avid tinkerer, built props for us, giant neon-spray-painted and black-light-receptive signs to be popped up during the skit or song or whatever we were doing. Then, on weekends, we’d tour around and/or perform at our own church. We’d go to competitions a couple times per year, too, massive meet-ups of other churches and their puppet groups where’d you’d compete and be judged on the quality of the puppets and props, skill of the puppeteers, overall enthusiasm, creativity, etc.

I was having the time of my young life.


It all changed when I hit 8th Grade. I was starting to move away from the church and its teachings, questioning everything. (I can pinpoint almost exactly when it started, that year, when a Sunday School teacher of mine stumbled after I questioned about dinosaurs, why they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, etc., and she scolded me, said something to the effect of, “Don’t ask any more questions, Robby! Religion isn’t about questions!”) Because I’d been having doubts about it all, about everything, it made stomaching the saccharine songs and skits that much more difficult, but really, if I’m being honest, it was about the fact I wanted to talk to girls, to be a “normal” kid, and I didn’t see puppets as normal—I started seeing it as weird, an oddity. Gone was the pride I had only a year or so before, replaced now with a spiral of shame. No one could know I was involved with this—no one!

A friend from church made fun of me once in 9th Grade, the last year I picked up a puppet, in front of a whole bunch of non-church friends, and that was, as I saw it, the literal end. I had only agreed to do puppets again that year because my parents were gutted when I told them I wanted out, had lost interest. But now, with people at school hearing about this…that was too far. So I (graciously, as I saw it) kept it up until the “season” ended, then bowed out. My youth pastor was dejected, my parents disappointed, and none of the other puppeteers and parents could understand why I wanted to be gone.

And then I was. And I never looked back.

My non-church friends who didn’t know about this part of my life already were never told. Those that did were sworn to secrecy. And I moved on to other things in my life and put puppeteering, puppets, and church, all behind me.

But now, twenty-ish years later, still no longer part of any church (this isn’t about that), I find myself coming back to those puppet years often and remembering them fondly, almost longingly. I was a child, I wanted to explore, I wanted to be liked—and, really, I wanted to make a difference in some way. Puppeteering gave me all of that. I was still shy in high school, really didn’t emerge into Fully Formed Adult Rob until college, but I absolutely believe that time with the Puppet Ministry is when I began to move away from ultra-reserved hidden-away Michigan boy, letting the chatty, silly boy who lurked there beneath—the real me—break free. I’m thankful for that. And I get it: So many of us move away from childish endeavors (or, what we perceive as childish endeavors) during adolescence. I don’t regret that specifically—I don’t wish that I had become a professional puppeteer, or anything like that—but it is a weird duality: being a part of that Puppet Ministry that I hated so much in the end helped me focus on my writing, my drawing, too, and it made me fearless(-ish) in wanting to try out new things and experiences and meeting new people—which I still carry with me today. And, I have to think, that it was all worth it, no matter what Adolescent Robby thought.


At my folks’ house, when I visit, I occasionally rifle through bags and tubs of old toys and knickknacks from when I was a kid. Last time I was there I came across a wolf puppet—a puppet I loved dearly when I was a kid. I found myself on the couch, hours later, with the wolf still firmly attached to my hand, watching television, only half-paying attention to what I was doing, pantomiming the wolf’s mouth along to the commercials that whizzed by in thirty second spots. I petted his fur, lingered on the glass marble eyes staring blankly ahead, the white plastic teeth that looked good for their age, only just starting to yellow. I was smiling.


Side note: The title of this essay is taken from a Christian rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” that goes a little something like this:

Jeremiah was a prophet / Moses was a prophet too. / Jesus Christ was the Son of God / and man His love shines down on you. / Yes His love shines down on you. / Singing Joy to the World / All the boys and girls / Joy to children of Galilee / Joy to you and me. 

[and onward, etc.]

Interview at Michigan Volumes

Honored to have chatted with Karen Hopper at Michigan Volumes about Mesilla, my writing process, the silliness of the Western genre as well as the wonderful conversations it produces, too (among other things).

Michigan Volumes is a radio show and podcast dedicated to Michigan writers and books set in or about Michigan. Really thrilled to have been asked to participate—and to support a homegrown Michigan show like this!

Pick up a copy of Mesilla at Dock Street Press.

Mesilla reviewed at The Next Best Book Blog

Lori at The Next Best Book Blog recently reviewed Mesilla:

Breathtaking, beautiful, and bloody as hell, Mesilla kept me captivated straight through to the very end. The book is all landscape and language, Russell is one helluva talented writer. The only complaint I have is that I wish it were longer.

Do check out the rest of the review—and thanks, Lori! 

Pick up a copy of Mesilla at Dock Street Press.

MVICW Writing Contest

UntitledWriters! The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing (MVICW) is a stunning writing conference that takes place (well, obviously!) on Martha’s Vineyard, and each year they bring in absolutely stellar faculty—it’s one of the coolest writing and community experiences I’ve ever been a part of. Period.

I’m delighted to be the fiction judge for the inaugural MVICW Writing Contest, alongside uber-talent and fantastic human being Marcus Wicker (who will be judging poetry). Prizes will cover tuition and lodging for this summer’s program. So, check it out, pass it along, and teachers, tell your students.

I really can’t recommend the MVICW enough. Details below, and on the MVICW website.

Contest Details

Two First Prizes: $1500 (Tuition and Lodging for the Week): Poetry and Fiction
Runner up: $500 each (Towards Tuition): Poetry and Fiction

We are thrilled to offer the first annual competition to win a spot at The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.  The competition is open to anyone who will be 18 years or older as of July 2016. Two winners (one in poetry and one in fiction) will receive the full retreat package, including tuition and lodging. Two second prize winners (one in poetry and one in fiction) will receive $500 towards the cost of tution and lodging. For full details click on the “enter contest” button above or go to to read about our program and guidelines.

About the MVICW

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing was founded in order to give writers the opportunity to develop their craft among established authors. The Institute offers a comprehensive week-long focus on writing, providing writers with the necessary time to devote to their art, in the idyllic setting of the Vineyard. Each summer, we invite award-winning authors and poets, literary journal editors, and university creative writing faculty from around the country to lead writing workshops, work one-on-one with individuals, and provide the necessary tips and tools for editing and publishing. Our goal is to make the writing program experience a personal one that aids in building a writing community, establishing friendships with other writers, and offering contacts in the industry. Participants include individuals of varying ages and writing abilities, from published writers to skilled beginners. We hope you will join us this summer!

Mesilla reviewed by David Abrams

David Abrams, the uber-talented, acclaimed author who blurbed Mesilla upon its release, recently reviewed the book and exclaimed it one of the best novellas he read in 2015:

Spare, unforgiving, relentless, beautiful. Those words describe three things: the New Mexico desert landscape in 1863, the plot of Mesilla, and Robert James Russell’s language which never seems to break a sweat on this novella’s pages.

I’m forever grateful for David’s words—for everything! And this is great company to be in, his other picks. Highly recommend checking those out, too.

Pick up a copy of Mesilla at Dock Street Press.

Essay: We Buy Gold

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter—the second of mine…the first is here—that I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. 


I’ve only ever been to a toga party once, back when I lived in Los Angeles.

I had moved to LA right after college (in the Midwest)—never having not lived in the Midwest—excited to try to get a job in the movie industry, and to reinvent myself…start over.

It was all on a lark, really. An acquaintance in college (who I didn’t know too well, to be honest) was moving out there. We were in film classes together—I acted in one of his student films, he filmed one of mine—and one day he propositioned me: “You should come with.”

That was all it took: “You should come with.” Why not, I reasoned.

My folks weren’t happy—my mom didn’t fly (still doesn’t), so the prospect of seeing me, visiting me, would require them to drive out to California (no easy feat, if you’ve ever done it), which did not excite them. But my mind was set: I needed to get to the West Coast. It had the allure, the promise, of something…anything. I had an English degree, I wanted to be a writer but barely wrote, believing writing wasn’t something to be nurtured, but that would just rear itself when needed. Some latent gift. I had a Film Specialization, too. I loved film (still do): it inspires me in a way that not even music, writing, can. And I was stagnant, here, in Michigan. Sick of the Midwest, wanted to get away from a crappy relationship, cold weather, and absolutely zero prospects. So, I left, end of the summer, a couple months after I graduated.

I arrived in LA…and, well, it was a weird situation.

My college girlfriend (we were broken up—for good—at the time) decided she was moving out there, too, on a whim! Really. She applied to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, got in, and we—me and her and her dad (ugh, it was awkward) flew out together. I knew exactly two people in LA at the time: my roommate, who was already out there, and my ex-girlfriend, who, for a while, wanted to patch things up, but I didn’t want that, I needed to move on—ready to leave it, us, behind.

I saw her only a handful of times when I lived in LA, I realize now, for that very reason: she reminded me of home, of the old me, and it hindered me, I thought. It didn’t allow me the clean break I needed. And, see, it wasn’t that I was escaping something heinous back home—nothing like that. I just didn’t come into my own, who I was, who my friends were, what I was comfortable being, doing, until later in college, and I felt…held back. I wanted that California sunshine, the waves, the glamor, the tanned body (why not!)…all of it. I had never had a chance to break free in my life, to really feel unencumbered, and I needed that. Desperately.

(Also: Can we talk for a minute about how horrible it was being on a plane with my ex, her dad, and me—me at the window, her dad on the aisle, him hating me, and whenever we talked, me and her, he’d lean forward and death stare me. Just horrible.)

So, there I was, stepping off the proverbial bus from the Midwest (but, you know, a plane), a walking cliché, never having been to LA before. In fact, I was so naïve, I arrived without a car thinking I didn’t need one. Ha!  But I got a job pretty quick in the South Bay area at a mall as a manager of a…let’s just say a once-popular-but-now-declining-yet-always-controversial-clothing store that smelled—strongly—of cologne), and had to bus it there (1.5 hours each way). Which was…interesting, to say the least. I’d sit there, riding, listening to my Discman as we rode through the industrial parts of town, near the airport, scared, nervous, alone.

I bought a car not long after, an adorable all-white 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. It was cheap, needed a lot of work, but I loved that car. I could write for days about it (maybe I will someday).

Anyway, I was settling in. Time passed. I had my go-to order for In-N-Out (Animal-style!), knew my way around the city, the best beaches (El Matador!), where to get cheap good food (hello, small Hawaiian diner in Manhattan Beach with the huge huge portions!), and—soon enough—I was working at a film studio. I had somehow finagled my way into a job as the Assistant to the President of Production at an actual film studio that made big popular films. It was nuts, a dream, a nightmare…all of it.

But I was lost.

LA is…a beautiful city. Truly. I had made great friends, I loved the weather (didn’t, really, miss the seasons, if I’m being honest), adopted a very California-lazy vibe, and I had no real complaints. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do, to be, and that place is a very dangerous place to exist in with that state of mind.

I had been living there for about ten months when the toga party happened.  We were invited by a woman that my roommate and I knew, a friend-of-a-friend situation. And I remember this clearly: to get ready, my roommate and I went to Target to buy new sheets, fresh sheets, and I got soft heather gray Jersey-knit style sheets to be my toga. I didn’t want white ones. Everyone would be in white.

The the party was at a moderately-nice-but-still-rundown apartment complex on a hill overlooking Culver City (where we lived). And it was packed. Wall to wall. People were drinking (duh), drugs were happening (not by me, but hey, no judgment), and it was…fun. Not crazy, nothing was going on I hadn’t seen before during college, just the good, semi-restrained fun I was used to back in the Midwest.

Then I met someone, a woman named Chichi.

Nothing happened, not even an eventual goodbye hug, but we hit it off, talked a bit out on the balcony overlooking the sprawl, and the party, eventually (as all good parties do) headed to the beach. It was late, closer to morning than night, and the handful of us that had relocated found spots, companions, and nestled. A fog had rolled in—I still remember it, this magical scene: waves crashing, no birds, no cars, dense, soft, otherworldly.

If I’m being honest, I don’t remember much about Chichi, but I remember her telling me that she had moved to LA from somewhere else, out East, I think, and that she loved LA, didn’t know what she wanted to do or be but was in love with being there. I asked her what she did, how she got by. She worked odd jobs, as we all do in our twenties, and then she told me, too, that she’d periodically go to the pawn shop and sell things, her prized possessions, one at a time to make ends meet, when needed.

“One of those ‘We buy gold’ places?” I joked.

“Yes,” she said. And she had sold some gold—jewelry, inherited—her DVD player, movies, baseball cards that she had collected whatever she could get money for.

“Why?” I asked. “Why sell everything you love, you own”—she did love these things, she told me—“why stress yourself out like this?”

“Because I want to be here that bad,” she told me. “Nothing else matters to me other than being here. In this place.”

I was…surprised. I had never loved anything in my life that much. It turns out I liked LA, but didn’t love it, my job was…okay, at times (mostly soul-sucking, though), but that sort of passion did not exist in my life. And I was jealous, immediately. There had been an idea, a kernel of an idea, bubbling in my mind for a while: I wanted to move home, back to Michigan. I wanted to go to grad school (somewhere) and I wanted to write…books. Novels. But here I was, feeling dead-ended, stuck, perpetually. I had good times, made the best of it, yes, but I wasn’t…where I needed to be. And she, Chichi, was.

Someone got spooked soon after that, thinking the cops were coming, that we’d be chased off the beach (or worse), so we parted ways. I never talked to or heard from Chichi again, but that was fine…it wasn’t about that. Everything changed after that night, after our conversation. My life, my direction, it all changed.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I didn’t understand the hard work that it took, the time, the practice (oh god so much practice) and life experience, too. But talking to Chichi ripped something open—made me realize, running clumsily in the sand, toga sopping wet from having played in the dark ocean, that I deserved to have that, too, what she had.

I left LA a few months later, moved back to Michigan. I was happy with my decision, with where I’ve ended up now. I did go to grad school, and I picked up the pen in a way that I had always dreamt of, always wanted, from that point forward. In fact, I can pinpoint that night, if I think about it, as being the night that set me on the track, the writing track, understanding what I needed to do, how I needed to bleed for it, the craft. But every so often I think about being lost, about being in that place, that sprawl, especially, and I wonder, now, looking back, if Chichi is still there, somewhere, selling her possessions, scraping by, still, just so she can have an LA area code, zip code, apartment, stories, friends, and if she has any of her gold family jewelry left. Or if it’s been sold, melted down, it, too, gone, forever, from that place, made to be something else, for someone else—transformed into something it was really meant to be.