I recently traveled to San Francisco in the vague hopes of getting a chance to interview, or at least the chance to meet, one of my idols. Somehow, she ended up interviewing me instead.
There’s no one noun that can qualify Miranda July. Writer, filmmaker, actress, performance artist, curator — hell, maybe even journalist — they all fit this UCSC dropout. Her work includes the two feature films, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “The Future,” the short story collection “No One Belongs Here More than You,” the nonfiction interview collection “It Chooses You,” the collaborative art project “Learning to Love You More,” and countless other written pieces, short films and performances.
Despite being multi-platform, July retains a distinct style in everything she does, and the best way I can think to explain it is that she manages to enter your brain through your heart. She is a master of fragile but powerful sentiment, like that expressed by Paw Paw, a soon-to-be adopted cat (voiced by July) who serves as both narrator and plot device in “The Future” — a creative move that got her a lot of criticism for being overly precious, yet the emotional impact touched at something I couldn’t ignore.
Anxious because of his previous life as a stray, Paw Paw hopes to never have to be alone outside at night again, for fear of what he refers to only as “the darkness” that occurs. It’s a metaphor for the crushing feelings of inadequacy and isolation that protagonists Sophie and Jason know but cannot articulate — and, yes, maybe it’s an obvious one. But it also got me in the gut somewhere I didn’t anticipate, as I realized that my entire life can be boiled down to not wanting to be a part of “the darkness.” It’s so ludicrously simple that it would be maddening, if it weren’t also true.
That’s what I tried to express to friends each time I was met with a “who?” when telling them about my plan to meet Miranda July.
Here’s how it all happened: A couple months ago, I came across an event at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF), titled “The Auction: An Evening of Performance and Conversation With Miranda July.” Too often I’ve been the miserable fan who hears about concerts and appearances a week too late, so I was quick to buy tickets for myself and a friend.
The best way to keep one’s life on track, I’ve found in all of my 20 years of living, is to always have something to look forward to. Miranda July was now my beacon, a way to project my hopes on bad days or gloomy hours. As sometimes happens with excitement, I got cocky. I started thinking maybe I would get a chance to interview her, and spin it into a brilliant, insightful profile, and maybe she’d read it and we’d become best friends who emailed drafts back and forth and slept on each other’s couches while visiting.
I didn’t actually put much effort forth into making this happen, because I knew that would jinx it. I’d been taught through falsified “overnight success” stories in the media that the less you actively work towards something, the more likely it is to happen. Nonchalance is my generation’s ambition.
Somehow, the day came that I was sitting in the lobby of the JCCSF, sipping tea before the show started and whispering to my friend that the woman behind him wearing green tights and a black tunic looked an awful lot like Miranda July from where I was sitting. Then the woman turned around, and it was her.
Not only was it her, but she was walking right toward me.
Shall we pause for a moment to talk about love? Because, in case this wasn’t already clear, I love Miranda July. I love her the way professors love supplemental reading, the way stoners love sneaking food into movie theaters, the way my sister loved the Spice Girls in 1996. I love her in that poster-on-my-bedroom-wall, following-a-tumblr-called-”fuckyeahmirandajuly,” drunkenly-loaning-her-book-to-a-stranger-then-immediately-asking-for-it-back-because-it’s-too-important-to-me-to-take-that-risk kind of way. I knew it my freshman year of college, as soon as I read her book of short stories “No One Belongs Here More than You,” starting with this exchange between two characters in the story “The Shared Patio”:
“Did you ever really love her?
Not really, no.
Even though I have no pizazz?”
There it is, again — that stunning simplicity, the literary version of a child’s valentine, and it grabbed me the way no supposedly highbrow college reading could. I love July’s work — and therefore her, as she’s an auteur in everything she does — because she walks the very fine yet crucial line separating pure sentiment from unbearable twee, and manages never to cross it. It’s familiar but not, refreshing yet relatable.
Critics can easily mistake July’s quirkiness as being “hipster,” all an act designed to court those who self-identify as outside the mainstream. That’s understandable, given that in the current cultural climate, the natural response to anything that appeals to emotion is skepticism. What’s remarkable is how wrong they are — in fact, July is one of the few young artists who manages to be relevant today without resorting to irony, instead using creative and earnest realism, and at times magical realism.
Now here she was, crossing the threshold from daydream best friend to real-life stranger. I stumbled to my feet, less a conscious sign of respect than because suddenly there were more jitters running through my body than it could support sitting down.
“Hi,” she said, in the kind, slightly wavering voice I’d only ever heard coming through speakers before. “Are you here for tonight’s event?”
“Yes, and it’s very nice to meet you,” I half-shouted, as if volume was what would make this moment most real.
July’s calmness in the face of my abundant excitement wasn’t surprising — she wasn’t the one who was meeting her hero, and besides, one of the things I love about her work is that it cuts through unnecessary noise to get to the heart of things. Still, it was a bit disconcerting. Instead of her absorbing my energy, it just bounced off of her and back onto me, doubling my nerves.
“Where are you from?” she asked, as my wide eyes must have made it clear that I was not completely at home in San Francisco, as much as I loved being there.
“Santa Cruz,” I answered.
“So… you grew up in Santa Cruz?”
“No, I grew up in Sacramento and moved to Santa Cruz for college. I live there now.”
“What part of Sacramento? Like, just the greater area, or…”
“Just south of downtown and the Capitol,” I told her. How had it come to this? Why was I wasting my precious moments with Miranda July discussing Sacramento geography? Had she asked me that question to help me calm down, or because she was genuinely interested, or because she got a kick out of my nervous blurting-outs? This was real life, no luxurious fantasy, and I might have been ruining it.
She then asked if I had any objects that I wouldn’t mind talking about and giving away as part of the evening’s show. I cringed as I thought of all the wonderfully quirky and endearing stuff I had back in my hotel room — silly putty, a yellow coinpurse full of dimes, sour apple rolling papers — and asked meekly what kind of thing she was looking for.
“Oh, umm, just something that you carry around,” she said. “Like, Chapstick would work.”
“I’ve got some Chapstick!” said my friend Jesse, sensing my panic and wanting to help.
“No, it’s got to be hers,” Miranda said, gesturing toward me, like we were suddenly friends, on the same team, accustomed to gestures. “It’ll mess her up when she’s talking about it otherwise.”
She wanted to help me. She wanted me to be in her show. I’d admired this woman’s work so much the past two years, and now I had a chance to be a part of it.
I was not about to fuck this up.
I found a rental card from Cedar Street Video in my wallet and offered it to her.
“Yeah, this might work,” she said, her voice perking up a little. “Hold onto this and I’ll keep it in mind.”
And with that she was gone, leaving me to assail Jesse with “Oh, my god” and “Do you think she’ll pick me?!” on repeat for half an hour, until it was time to go in for the show.
The venue was full, around 200 seats altogether. We found our seats near the middle a few minutes before the show started. After an introduction, Miranda July took the stage, and as I clapped I felt the equilibrium returning — this was how it had always been, me admiring from her from afar, and maybe it was for the best.
That being said, I really, really wanted her to pick me.
She began the evening with an exercise to get the audience in the right mindset, to move us away from our outside lives and into a space of vulnerability and trust. Everyone had to grab hold of the nearest stranger’s arm while she read a list of possible fates — encountering our strangers at the table that is laughing too loudly while out to dinner next week, meeting our stranger’s offspring in a foreign country decades from now but never making the connection, or maybe even finding ourselves naked and alone with our stranger later that night, giving an ambiguous groan when asked if what our stranger is doing feels good, and realizing that we should have forcefully said yes — but is it too late to correct ourselves?
“From experience, I can tell you it is never too late,” she said, amid uncomfortable chuckles in the audience.
After that exercise — which ended in everybody giving their stranger’s arm an encouraging squeeze after being reminded that they will someday die — it was time to get down to business. The stage was set up much like a talk show, with two armchairs, two microphones, a table between them and a screen set up behind it. Holding one of the microphones, July said the words I’d been trying not to expect.
“First, I’m going to ask the woman from Santa Cruz who was willing to give away her video rental card to come to the stage.”
Making my way to the stage, I felt relaxed, even downright serene compared to when July had approached me less than an hour ago. I’d just been comforted by a stranger about my own mortality — surely I could handle anything now.
And then there we were, just me and Miranda, onstage, working together to provide entertainment — or at least some kind of memorable experience — for the audience. I put my rental card on the table, and it also appeared on the giant screen, giving a sort of QVC feel to it all. She asked me my name and I answered, and then we were off.
“So is it going to be okay, you giving this up? You won’t need it?”
“No. I haven’t used this much since summer, when I didn’t have Internet or TV for a while, so I would rent movies.”
“How was it not having Internet?”
“It was rough. I think it probably worsened my anxiety, because there were fewer distractions.”
“Right. So you’d just wake up in the morning and be like… now what do I look at?”
This is actually quite reminiscent of a scene in “The Future,” when protagonists Sophie and Jason decide to cancel their Internet for a month to better focus on achieving their creative dreams. They wake up the next morning, instinctively grab their laptops, and are met with the empty promise that is a computer without an Internet connection. Watching the film for the first time in October, I’d identified with that scene a lot, and I wanted to tell Miranda that — but we were already moving onto the next thing.
“So you go to UC Santa Cruz. I went there for a while, but I dropped out.”
“I know. It’s on your Wikipedia.”
This made everyone laugh, including her, and I wanted to exist in that moment forever — wanted to stop time, like Jason does in “The Future” when Sophie is about to leave him. I didn’t want to ever leave this place where I could be earnest and witty at the same time, where I could impress strangers and heroes with my enthusiasm.
Either July is an incredibly gifted interviewer or I was an all-too-eager subject as she used the remaining 10 minutes to easily segue from my relationship with my parents, to my romantic history, to what I wanted to do with my life. Her final question was — in classic Miranda July fashion — simple but affecting.
“What is your great hope?”
“My great hope is … I want to write something that people care about.”
“Hmm,” she said, and she paused for a moment and then nodded, as if something had come together for her. “I think you will.
After that she and I both signed a certificate saying I was handing over my rental card, then she auctioned it off to a member of the audience (some dude in a plaid shirt who I didn’t get a chance to talk to) and the money went to anonymous audience members in need. It was an interesting examination of how we assign worth to objects, and of the stories physical things can carry with them. She repeated the exercise with two other people, then did a Q&A session, and it was over. I felt more at ease during the rest of the show than I had in weeks.
Even though I’d already gotten my golden experience, there was no way I was leaving without getting my book signed, as proof that I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. When I got to the front of the line and exchanged awkward hello-agains, she seemed a bit distracted and tired — did I mention she was seven months pregnant? — but she thanked me for being brave. I had so much to say, like that she’s changed the way I think about art, and that I wish I could be as simple yet effective in my prose as she is, but all I could get out was a couple of thank yous. And then I finally left the venue, fielding compliments on the way from supportive audience members, and it was the end of something.
The show was inspired by July’s most recent book, “It Chooses You,” a series of interviews with people she found trying to sell things in the “PennySaver.” She wrote in the book that it was difficult not to fictionalize her subjects, and while I wouldn’t say she was fictionalizing me, that suspended moment on stage when we were talking about my life didn’t feel like anything I was used to. I’m accustomed to having to look over my shoulder while anxiously inching forward in life, to everyone being considered boring and useless until proven otherwise, to an eye roll being much more universal than squeezing a stranger’s arm. Miranda July rejects this world, and turns people into art.
This feeling reminded me of a passage from “No One Belongs Here More than You”:
“I laughed and said, ‘Life is easy. What I meant was, Life is easy with you here, and when you leave, it will be hard again.’”
Except it wasn’t hard, because now I knew definitively that something else existed. I had jumped into where Miranda July lives, some sort of chasm between reality and fiction, but I felt more real than I had in a long time.