A Memoir" by Wendy Ortiz; Future Tense (242 pages,
she was just 13, Wendy Ortiz began to learn important
lessons about love, honesty and human depravity. She was
a precocious eighth-grader, and she was about to fall
under the spell of her 28-year-old English teacher.
Ivers," as the teacher is known in Ortiz’s new
memoir (it’s not his real name), was at once charming
and manipulative. Almost immediately, he seized on his
student’s desire to be a writer — she’d already
produced a handwritten novel — to get closer to her.
Ivers wants you to call him at home," a classmate
tells her. "Here’s his phone number. So you guys
can talk about your book."
didn’t question why my friend had my teacher’s phone
number," Ortiz writes. "All I could think
about was when."
A Memoir" (Future Tense, $15 paperback) is Ortiz’s
account of the events that unfolded after she called
Jeff back. Ortiz, now 41, is a San Fernando
Valley-raised poet, essayist and literary activist.
"Excavation" is her first book. It’s a work
of unfettered emotions and explicit descriptions that
explores her troubled youth and teenage struggles to
understand her budding sexuality.
long after she called Jeff back, he began to try to
seduce her. It was a crime, but as a 13-year-old she
didn’t see herself as a victim. Young Wendy thought
she was in love. In "Excavation," Ortiz the
writer makes it clear that there are no easy
explanations for what transpired in Jeff’s apartment
and the other places they met.
writing about something that people prefer to see as
black and white," Ortiz says in the home she shares
with her girlfriend, Sandy Lee, and their 3-year-old
daughter. "But I really want to expose the
"Excavation," Ortiz shares passages from her
teenage journals. The book covers the four years Wendy
spent seeing Jeff, a relationship that ended before she
turned 18 and that she kept secret from the adults who
might have stopped it.
didn’t want to be average," Ortiz writes in a
chapter titled "Why I Didn’t Tell." "I
didn’t want it to end. I was comfortable keeping
secrets. I was afraid of being blamed. I felt
responsible for his acts. I was numb..."
is a hallmark of Ortiz’s work. As a poet and essayist,
she has mined her own life again and again. "Ortiz
writes with a raw, wrenching, vulnerable truth that is
refreshing, grounding, and full of life-sustaining
filaments," Jessica Dewberry wrote in a critical
essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books in April.
"When I read her work I feel exposed, aired-out,
at a long table in her living room, with her daughter’s
toys and chalkboard nearby, Ortiz summed up what drives
her to write. "I want to be really committed to
going to some of the darkest places and taking that and
making it art," she said. "I want to work with
things that are uncomfortable and scary."
a 2012 essay for the New York Times’ "Modern
Love" column, Ortiz described an episode that
unfolded some years earlier — falling in love with
another woman as she prepared to marry her husband. The
affair that inevitably followed ended her marriage but
forced Ortiz to sort out who she really was.
Ortiz is becoming a therapist. In addition to a growing
resume as a writer, she has a master’s degree in
clinical psychology and is working at a Los Angeles
clinic, finishing the final intern hours she needs to
get her license. The work she does in private sessions
with her clients mirrors her own journey. "It’s
been a constant process of trying to understand the arc
of my life, and what it all means," she said.
the same time, Ortiz is curating the Rhapsodomancy
reading series she started in 2004. During its first
decade, it’s hosted an all-star cast of Los Angeles
writers, including Chris Abani, Bernard Cooper, Dana
Johnson and Nina Revoyr.
own writing is often witty and self-effacing, as with
her column on the marijuana dispensary culture for
McSweeney’s. She’s 12,000 words into a memoir based
on her "Modern Love" essay and her failed 2007
marriage and confesses to being stuck. "I think it
takes me at least 10 years to digest an experience
before writing about it," she said. Another memoir,
"Hollywood Notebook," tackles her move to that
L.A. neighborhood and is due out in November.
Ortiz worked to transform her experience with
"Jeff" into a book, she was inspired by two
memoirs that tackle themes of sexual identity, she said:
"The Chronology of Water" by Lidia Yuknavitch
and "Firebird" by Mark Doty.
said she wanted to offer a full portrait of the man who
entered her life when she was still a child. In
"Excavation," Jeff comes off as an exceedingly
immature, needy and creepy 28-year-old. Thanks to Megan’s
Law, Ortiz said, she has since discovered Jeff is a
registered sex offender who’s been convicted of a lewd
act with another minor.
showed her manuscript to several literary agents who’ve
contacted her as her career has blossomed. But none, she
said, took on the task of trying to sell her memoir.
"I kept hearing the same comments from them,"
she said. Her book was "beautiful," they told
her, but also "dark" and
"difficult." Eventually, she sold
"Excavation" to editor Kevin Sampsell at a
small Portland publisher, Future Tense Books.
real and honest and not heavy-handed or
moralistic," Sampsell said of Ortiz’s book.
"Other less-finessed writers would probably have
gone in those directions. She seemed to have a lot of
control over her subject matter."
mother is among those who may soon learn for the first
time what Wendy went through as a middle-schooler. Even
as "Excavation" was published this month,
Ortiz had yet to tell her mother the full truth about
her English teacher. Her mother is frail and doesn’t
read much, Ortiz said. And she lives in the same Valley
house were Ortiz grew up.
been afraid for people to see this," Ortiz said of
the story "Excavation" tells. "For some
this might be a new concept: that a victim might have
some agency in the situation she’s trying to navigate.
And that she might make decisions some people on the
outside might not understand."