The Eighty-Nine Secrets of Wendy C. Ortiz: A Review of Hollywood Notebook

“It’s not in my nature to ever stop digging,” Wendy C. Ortiz told Electric Literature during an interview for her debut memoir, Excavation. As it turns out, Ortiz hasn’t — her latest work, Hollywood Notebook, spills out in the form of eighty-nine autobiographical prose poems. Or perhaps it is better said that they are essays. Or memories. Or secrets. Or dreams.

Take, for example, “chapter” fourteen:

My body remembered yesterday how much it loves the ocean; the roll and tumble, the suspense of a solid set coming towards us; the weightlessness, as another mermaid pulled me along and I remembered what it was like to be five years old with her; the water so cold it transmits an ache to the feet until I just glide on in and my entire body is submerged; the second plunge under a wave we don’t have enough time to ride; the friendly swells that lift and fall underneath me; the slap of water to the head, the ocean reminding me who’s in charge —

Beautiful, to have spent much of that day with M., and the presence of her father who’s also known me since I was under four feet tall, and the ocean, who’s known me forever.

Regardless of exactly what they are, each page-or-two long section of Hollywood Notebook digs into Ortiz and the landscape she inhabits. “All of this, with a view of Los Angeles,” she writes at one point and while all of this refers literally to an art gallery, it could also be directed at the project of Hollywood Notebook itself — here is a life, lived in the shadow of a great desert city. And a life it is; Ortiz’s writing has a distinct quality of being not unedited, exactly, but uncensored — as if the reader is spying on Ortiz’s journaling over her shoulder. The tone is raw and confessional and wrought with lies, but the kind of lies one tells oneself in order to cope, to try to move on. The entire project becomes nearly reminiscent of the self-musings of Maggie Nelson, if Nelson were consulting astrological charts rather than philosophy.

Sometimes the experiments don’t pay off, as is the case with Ortiz’s long and heavy-handed rewriting of a George W. Bush speech on counterterrorism. Others do, though, like the simple inclusions of lists, or self-addresses:

Simple rules of August

  • Try to refrain from re-reading Sylvia Plath’s journals
  • Awake from the Tauren lap of naps and luxury to hike in the sun up the trail you fondly call your own.
  • Smell the air. Remember what August does to you. Remember what September, October, usually mean.

That’s it: nothing more, no additional explanation. A snippet, perhaps, from one of Ortiz’s many journals but without context for the reader who’s stumbled upon her memoir (or is it her poetry? Her confessions?). The culmination of sum of the chapters transforms into a found-document that the reader could even feel undeserving of, or uncomfortable by. Too often it seems as if we’ve discovered Ortiz’s diary and have taken the liberty of helping ourselves to its contents without permission. Yet, of course we have permission, even while the You of Hollywood Notebook is only meant for a specific individual, rather than the collected eyes who are privy to it with its publication.

Hollywood Notebook, then, is a sui generis gem, and one to take advantage of immediately. How often can we read a stranger’s journals so guiltlessly, and with such satisfaction? Ortiz inspires it — she’s laid herself bare, and in doing so dug deep in a way that so few memoirs can actually achieve.

There is no construction to Hollywood Notebook, no pretense: just a woman and a desert and a blank page. It is enough.

Hollywood Notebook

by Wendy C Ortiz

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