Saturday, January 28, 2006

Two cents on a Million Little Pieces.


“And then a rabid dog…bit off my genitals…and it turned out…that dog – that dog – was my father!"

Though not an actual line from the King of All Over-Emoting, for some reason Shatner's acting style leaped to mind when the topic of Frey's book-thing came up.

And although it's also not, so far as I know, an actual line from a Creative Writing class, it absolutely could be, so file this under: The Revenge of the Writer's Group...

I have not read James Frey’s biofiction, or Auto Da Fake, or bogus a clef or whatever face-saving categorical rug his publishers will invent under which to sweep it (although I can guess that the words “dangerous”, “controversial” and “firestorm” will be involved.)

And I never met the guy.

But I do know a little bit about writer’s groups.

Oh my yes.

I may have been part of one or two during my sordid youth. I may have even led one or two. The historical record is somewhat murky, but let's just say that I’ve had good times and bad in the company of writers, and by-and-large, the group dynamic pulls it two directions: the people who favor the “vivid moment” – something shocking or tear-inducing or sometimes just nauseating hove up from memory or the gut – and the people who are all about plot, structure, character development, etc.

Truth is, no one can teach anyone how to write. But it is very much the case that you can teach someone who wants to learn how to write better. A good group or class has, in the end, helped four or five people hone their own, unique, idiosyncratic voices in front of a supportive but very critical audience.

When those strains – the memory-making power of the prose, the structure of the plot and the vibrancy of characters – all pull in the same direction, you can end up with brilliant work. But the Muse, as the saying goes, is a tough buck. It’s an elusive art where competence comes from mastery of the tools, and greatness comes from breaking them, but you reeeeally need to learn to work the forge and pound the anvil before you decide to become Frank Gehry.

A bad group, OTOH, rapidly develops an awful glory all its own.

It can quickly turn into a viper pit, or a leader-knobbing contest where everyone’s stuff starts to all taste like the inside of the facilitator’s mouth. Or a one-upping contest to see who can outdo who when it comes to grossing each other out.

And among writer’s of a certain age, I have found that wandering down into this last, gently downsloping cul-de-sac is the easiest mistake to make and the hardest to redeem. Because let’s face it, if you take, say, your average, suburban Caucasian male at a certain age when he gets the artist’s itch, odds are he hasn’t yet done anything yet that will win him the accolades of his peers when he puts it down cold and clear on paper.

So during the first week or two, vanilla. Then comes a vignette about a gym coach trying to molest someone.

And everyone gasps.

And by the next week, five other people who had previously written about their jello shot adventures at Senior Frog's have decided that they, too, have been touched inappropriately by some Authority Figure.

The following week, someone’s “I was so stoned” weed-tale has become, “I was seriously into heroin”. And his girlfriend's a junkie too.

And now we're off the fucking Shock-‘n-Awe races.

By the next week, GF was also a stripper. At a roadhouse. Full of bikers.

Gay bikers.

By the next week, the poor girl is dead in a manner eerily similar to the way a hooker was murdered on "CSI: French Lick, Indiana" a few nights before, and the writer is on the run from the Chinese mafia, living off of the checks he's kiting to keep body and soul together. In an attempt to kick his by-now-raging smack habit he had become a “sorta Buddist”. Dad – who had been a claim’s adjuster a month ago – has been repurposed into a serial rapist wanted in Florida on weapon’s charges.

And magically, an overnighter in a suburban drunk tank for DUI has become seven months in Joliet, praying for death and being gang-raped by skinheads.

One story of moderate embarrassment involving a girl having the trots at a party and having the potty door swing open mutates into something involving projectile vomiting, which induces uncontrollable diarrhea at Thanksgiving dinner. All due to a bad reaction to a heroin-and-howler-monkey-pituitary-gland cocktail her boyfriend – a bi-prostitute – had shot her up with in the bathroom to help her cope with the loss of her mother in a recent carjacking.

Later she will discover her father and uncle having bondage sex with her boyfriend in the carport.

And at some point her beloved puppy -- Sniffy -- will die.

Horribly.

And as this race to the bottom accelerates, each writer will insist – often tearfully – that it’s all Absolutely True. Not because it's factually correct, but because their own prose is now causing a self-perpetuating emotional reaction in them.

Because it feels true, and because people love a freak show.

As "true" as mass, hysterical accusations of witchcraft. As "true" as mass, hysterical claims of a plague of child molestation based on “recovered memories” that came on as a fever-tide that swamped and swept away whatever kernels of truth might have been there at the start.

And that’s the key.

Is this the path James Frey followed to fame and infamy? And is this the reason so many people – including Oprah – are so credulous about Shaggy Dog That Almost Died of an Overdose and Then Found The Lord stories?

Is this why the myth of "George Bush: The Redeemed Wastrel" is played as a trump to chump the public over and over again?

I don’t know.

I do know that once upon a time I dated an otherwise nice woman who insisted that her “emotional truths” be given equal weight to mere “factual truths". So for example, on several occasions when she got all cranked up believing she had been wronged, after she clearly and verifiably learned that she had been in error, she was of the adamant opinion that she was still owed an apology.

(And in the interest of full-disclosure, at some point, near the end of our brief sojourn together, having grown tired of it, it is likely that I might have loudly opined that she was out of her fucking mind. And she might have insisted that I take it back. And then it’s possible that I might have suggested that whether or not it was really-for-real-true, she should honor the fact that I “felt” she was nuts as being “emotionally true” and get a doctor to write her a scrip for lithium ASAP.

Because I can be kind of a bastard sometimes.)

She was quite insistent she was right-ish, because in her mind, a thing and how you feel about a thing were both equally valid and correct ways of being “true”.

And in my travels I have met a whole lot of people like her, and they are all, to varying degrees, just plain wrong.

To be clear, I emphatically don’t want to live in a world of bloodless Vulcans and androids where emotions and passions are pooh-poohed as irrelevant or atavistic. Passion is as imperative to our species as air. However, as trivial and silly as some example from a writer’s group or the free-fire-zone of modern dating may be, the idea that the intensity of my feeling about something on any given day should be given weight and status co-equal to the actual facts of the thing itself is both deranged and incredibly dangerous.

Because it all lies along that grim and ugly continuum of magical thinking and superstition that we as a culture fought so hard to rise up out of and into an age of Enlightenment.

At one end are the small things. Little stuff, like coming to believe our own bullshit.

But at the other end you find lethally self-inflicted idiocy like Heaven’s Gate.

You find Creationism and the Rapture.

You find politicians blaming school shootings on condoms and preachers blaming 9/11 on feminists and the ACLU, because they and their followers have become so completely sealed into the Bell Jar of their insane ideology that they can no longer distinguish between the real world, the compassionate summons of conscience and Christ, and the gibbering, terrified voices shrieking around inside the echo chamber of their own mushy skulls.

Lynching in the name of Lord is down that road, and lie-and-fear-based warfare in the name of Jesus, Freedom, Oil and Preemption.

If in the end there is no check on the insistence that the emotional “reality” of the phantasms of our imagination and the bogeyman under the bed be equipositioned (which Merriam-Webster tells me is not a word but damn well should be) with real, actual concrete problems out here in the real actual, concrete world, we are well and truly fucked.

Because down that road lies a New Dark Ages.

And on your way, somewhere halfway between here and there, you’ll pass a sad mile-marker called, “A Million Little Pieces”.

108 comments:

Loveandlight said...

One story of moderate embarrassment involving a girl having the trots at a party and having the door swing open mutates into something involving projectile vomiting, which induces uncontrollable diarrhea at Thanksgiving dinner. All due to a bad reaction to a heroin-and-howler-monkey-pituitary-gland cocktail her boyfriend – a bi-prostitute – had shot her up with in the bathroom to help her cope with the loss of her mother in a recent carjacking.

This paragraph made me laugh so hard I almost had an attack of uncontrollable diarrhea! :-D

US Blues said...

Dude, I am running out of superlatives to describe your fine writing. This piece also had the honor and distinction of being deeply insightful as to the inner workings of a species of madness that is currently running on a cancer-like disease vector through the heart of our nation.

Oh, and you certainly have a way with the ladies, bro!

Loveandlight said...

This discussion on what truth is actually touches on something that I think is flawed about what this guy is preaching in his bio-fiction. While AA and the Twelve-Step Programs may not be as universally effective as its proponents have claimed in the past, it remains true that in order to recover from addiction in the long haul, you really do need some kind of spirituality. And yes, even a skeptic-atheist or agnostic can have a spirituality of sorts. The total reverse of an atheist-skeptic with their own sort of spiritualty is somebody like George Dubya Bush who cleaves to some kind of legalistic dogma, but there's no real spirituality behind it. And many observers have remarked that he exhibits the symptoms of a "dry-drunk", or someone who is no longer drinking but manifests many behaviorial and attitude traits of an unrecovered alcoholic. Mark my words, once the "July 2007" scenario outlined in an earlier post on this blog comes to pass, he'll go back to Crawford and crawl back inside that whiskey bottle for the rest of his sad, empty little life. I know he's an asshole, but I find it hard to cheer when anybody ends up like that. :-(

drbopperthp said...

I read this post Driftie and for some strange reason just couldn't shake this article that I ran across earlier today.
http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=10899


Old "Marjoe" is gonna bring back some fond memories and maybe help shed some further light on just what it is that you're spotlighting in your latest and greatest - how truly fucked we are in this concrete world of problems, while our country is held under the sway of power hungry, pseudoreligious snake oil salesmen dealing in the illusory politics of emotionalism. God save the "reality-based" world and its occupants. God save us all.

Anonymous said...

Drift: You, in a writers' group. There must have been a huge vacuum as people were sucked into your work. And I bet you didn't have to make any of it up.

-- mac

annie said...

This is why I visit your blog two or three times a day. You say what I think so eloquently. I made the comment in a discussion a few days ago that I wasn't surprised by the lies told in Frey's book. This is the state of our country. Our leaders are liars and it permeates everything.

Loveandlight said...

When I feel like writing an outrageously bizarre scene but it would be totally unbelievable in the context of the kind of story I'm writing, I make it into a dream-sequence that symbolizes how the dreaming character feels about what he's experiencing in the story. For instance, there was this one that took place on "The Jerry Springer Show" where...

{/me collapses onto floor as Drifty expeditiously positions a chloroformed-soaked dishrag over my nose and mouth!}

HubrisSonic said...

nice one drifty, i will forward to a 'writer' friend of mine who wants to start a 'writers group'.

jurassicpork said...

Good writing is not something that can be taught. But it can be learned.

tech98 said...

This is the real path of decline in our culture -- not the failure to live up to some Sunday School behavioral code as imagined by the fundies and the rabies-right; but the disdain for science, logic and facts, and the indulgence of emotionalism, magical thinking, willful ignorance; in the world of work, the elevation of sales and marketing and vacuous management fads over engineering and operational competence; the retreat into fantasy and pretty lies and disregard of hard realities and responsibility.
The wilfully-ignorant, incurious dolt in the White House and his followers easily manipulated by religious fairy tales is Exhibit A, Oprah's Army of emotional indulgents is Exhibit B.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

On this subject, I recommend Wendy Kaminer's book "Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise Of Irrationalism And Perils Of Piety" (Pantheon, 1999).---IBW

andrew said...

Hey! That's the story line *I* was working on! I'm gonna sue!

(Or maybe just rip it off, write a memoire, go on Oprah, make a fortune, get caught, go on Oprah, make another fortune...)

Scout said...

Just discussing the Frey saga with friends last night, and we all agreed that the latest Oprah appearance will put the book sales waaaay over the top. No such thing as bad publicity.

genoasail said...

This was by far the most interesting and cogent post on this topic.

The black and whiteness of the situation if fairly easy for most to discern, but you analysis of James Frey's work into it's own million little pieces was dead on.

Also, the writing was great. But it always is. Driftglass readers are spoiled.

WereBear said...

Driftglass, thanks for shedding light on the group-think that is so easily fallen into in any situation, but is particularly dangerous when combined with high levels of imagination and emotion. One good thing about this, in a purely selfish way, is the ease with which I can find new articles on old literary hoaxes, such as this article:

http://www.laweekly.com/view/Navahoax-2006-01-23/

One thing that hasn't been touched on in my recent research is how people who write fiction are prone to what might be called "terminal fabulism," in which they create fantasies about themselves to illustrate the inner truths they haven't touched on, and instead of following this path to real inner understanding, they fall into the pit of making the fantasies "real" and delude themselves and others. It then becomes just another way of hiding from real truth.

Other names that come to mind are Andrea Dworkin and Lawrence of Arabia.

BadTux said...

And somewhere down that road you will also find modern journalism, which has devolved into faithfully transcribing lies and truths spread by politicians and ordinary people alike and defending the product with the rubric "it is factually true that these people said these things, so I've done my job, it's not my job to find out the actual facts about what they're saying and report the actual facts that say one of these people is a liar." Yes, I have talked to actual reporters and editors, and heard these things from their mouths. Indeed, I've had my own words "pepped up" by reporters when necessary to spice up their story. Reporters have gone far, far down that road toward the New Dark Ages, that road where there is no literal truth, only feelings and opinions.

In short, "A Million Little Pieces" is just another symptom of a rot pervading the body public, where truth is buried under a sea of lies and nobody in publishing or news appears to care. The problem is that democracy cannot function in a sea of lies. We, the people, need someone to dig around and find out what's true and not so we can make good decisions about what to vote for and who to elect. Most of us simply do not have this it? And where can I send them money so they can do it better? e time or resources to dig around ourselves and find out what's true and what's not. If it is not journalism's job to discover and report the truth, then whose job is it? And where can I send them money so they can do it better?

-- Badtux the Truth-Seeking Penguin

eartha651 said...

Long before Frey's skaggy ass showed up on the literary scene, I had a feeling that the classic disclaimer's days were numbered: "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is coincidental." The lonely disclaimer, now roadkill, replaced by, "It didn't really happen, but I FELT it was true, so it must be true."

Frey lied for the money and prestige, of course (which is a tale in itself. See Gatsby, Jay, and his ignoble end). Got rejected by 17 publishers as fiction because, like most current literary fiction writers, unpublished and otherwise, he sucked; then scored big when his editor suggested he recast it as a memoir. Only problem is all that stuff about Hazelden, which is libel without our hapless little disclaimer. I'm no big fan of twelve-step programs OR the behaviorists (who are constantly at each other's throats about how to solve the problem of addiction), but I hope Hazelden takes a big chunk of Frey's royalties in an out of court settlement.

And the twelve-steppers, while I disagree with their methods, have hit on something worthy of great literature: the only way to avoid killing yourself with your addiction is STOP LYING. I don't care if it's heroin, caramel corn, religion, or controlling others through repressive political policies: just give up lying, and lying to cover up the lies you told, and tell the goddamned truth already. AA couches it in religious terms, but you don't have to have "god as you perceive him to do it." You simply renounce deception and the unfair power it gives you over others. It's hard, hard, hard, and probably much harder if your brain likes alcohol and/or drugs (not everyone's brain does). Somebody should write a book about how hard it is to do it without props or justifications or substituting one addiction for another. I'd read it.

Thanks for the fond memories of writer's groups, Driftglass. I've been in two, plus an MFA program at a not-so-well-known Midwestern university, and I'm convinced that anything worth reading that comes out of such places is a lucky accident. But we have to keep the faith and write, or as Ken Kesey put it, tell "the truth even if it didn't happen."

Anonymous said...

That woman you referred to: was she a self-described radical feminist and creationist? If so, we may have got it on with the same gal. Don't worry about the lithium comment. There was absolutely nothing you could do about her condition -- except maybe suggest lithium. In my One Step Program for the Cure of Mysticism the first and only step is: Recognize that your thinking is delusional. The light bulb has to want to change.

parsec

jurassicpork said...

I haven't blogged about Alito that much but on this, the first anniversary of my blog, I'm making up for lost time. Got up a new post making the most that I have the energy for of points raised by Jane Hamsher, Ted Kennedy and Jill Pike at Young Turks.

Enjoy. I need a cigarette and my friggin' back is killing me.

Anonymous said...

For such a good writer, your frequent misuse of the apostrophe is inexcusable. Sorry, but it's true.

driftglass said...

See, this is why I enjoy doing this. After a long day I come back and find such thorough and thoughtful comments. A pleasure to read and think about.

Thank you, thank you!

loveandlight,
Your feelings of pity and mercy for a post-crash George Bush is why we love ya. I never wanted to see these creeps to burn. Just leave Liberty the Hell alone. But since they've gone and picked a fight...

us blues,
Oh hush. And my experiences in the world of dating is...better save for another day.

mac & hubrissonic,
Groups are tools...but they are also often run by tools as well.

genoasail,
Thank you very much.

annie,
You are very kind.

parsec,
A gentleman doesn't kiss and detail.

anonymous,
I'm actually a terrific editor...of other people's work. Or of my own, but only when I can let it sit and "cool" for a day or two.

I pound this out fastfastfast, and there is simply no time for the kind of stately pace that I need to edit with care.

Also I was traumatized by an apostrophe when I was a wee driftglass and one inappropriately fondled my bikini-area.

Loveandlight said...

I know I'm being a terrible comment hog, but I'm at home this weekend with cold (by the way, get some Zicam at your local drugstore and keep in your med cabinet to start using when you start feeling a cold coming on; it makes your symptoms SO much more bearable that it's worth the ten buck price tag!), and I have nothing better to do than think and post.

I agree with you that it's wrong and fucked up to try and validate what you have to say on a particular topic by saying that stuff happened that didn't happen. That's just plain, old lying. Lying is bad, evidenced by the fact that lying got us into a horrific quagmire-in-the-desert that will do damage to both Iraq and America for decades to come. And certainly wishing that Peak Oil won't happen certainly won't stop it from happening.

Where I might disagree with you is about the logical mind being the final determinant of all truth. For instance, if my relationship with the Supreme Being (God/Goddess, the Spirit, the All-That-Is) touched my life in such a way that included my prayers for myself and others being answered often enough in my evaluation to be significant, is that to be discounted because the purely logical mindset says that proves nothing? I suspect you might say yes to that question, and I'm pretty sure I would say no to that same question.

Kia said...

Such interesting comments, wow.

There is a duty to truth, is how I like to put it. Nonfiction has one -- not asserting things as having occurred when such things did not occur.

Here's the strange part. Fiction is not simply "nonfiction that is lies." A writer who crapped all over the central principle of nonfiction as Frey did has also shown that he is totally unqualified to write fiction as well.

Because fiction also has a duty to truth and that duty resides in the writer's own attitude to truth. A person who cannot tell the truth cannot write good fiction. It's a different order of truth, but it is truth.

One of the depressing things about writing workshops (the bad ones) is that most of the writers or aspiring writers who go to them are hopelessly muddled on this point. They think, following the film industry, that truth and versimilitude are the same thing. It's not. The truth in fiction lives at the level at the author's intentions towards the reader, among other things. It is all about trust. There are a lot of things that you can have, short of real trust, like sensationalism and sentimentality, cheap moral indignation -- the kind you get when you watch like four episodes of Law & Order, and you know, that one detective he's sort of a stiff, he gets all outraged week after week after week at the Nazi child pornographer/murderer. Well, that's all cheap and dirty goods -- and the whole sorry catalog of emotionally dishonest dodges, and all the ensuing worse consequences, thank you driftglass for following the curve with such precision.

Better is out there to do. But I don't know many writing workshops where you could work it. Is it because writing can't be taught or learned? I don't think so. I think it's because whatever there is that can be taught about the ethics of writing nonfiction and fiction, most teachers have not even made a beginning on. Much better than has been done, can be done, I absolutely know that, that's not opinion, that's not subjective, that's truth.

Oh and I loved the story of the girlfriend. Thanks for sharing that, it was priceless.

eartha651 said...

kia, thanks, you are oh so right about the duty of fiction writers to adhere to a different order of truth. but one thing that has bothered me for years is when someone whose work I admire turns out to be a loser in real life: Ezra Pound the fascist, Hemingway the drunken asshole, F. Scott Fitzgerald the anti-Semite. To name a few. Maybe I should just quit reading biographies, but, like a car wreck, I can't look away.

driftglass said...

kia,
I agree. With autobio, you get trust sort of "for free" because you claim to speak for the truth. With fiction a writer has to create and sustain verisimilitude strong enough to convince the reader to stick around, and coherent and interesting enough to draw the reader on.

eartha651,
I've met a few of my favs, and its usually so-so, Some are amazing, but most are just working men and women with a gift that -- in time and silence -- they can somehow refine into gold. But out and about in the world, they're just as likely to be as unimpressive or nuts as anybody.

I know I am :-)

loveandlight,
Miracles and the divine are just fine by me. I believe in a divinity beyond us all quite sincerely.

But all the prayer in the world doesn't do my laundry, and the nun on her knees is no less pure in her faith than the Heaven's Gate cultists just before the poison kicked in or people who strap on bombs on thier chests and go out and kill children the serve God.

Nietchze said a lot of silly shit, but he also said something like, " "A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."

And he's right; it doesn't.

What we have at the end of the day with which to fight off the darkness is our reason, our compassion and our humanity. I'm cool with the idea of a guiding hand behind those things, but not as a substitute.

Namaste :-)

Kia said...

eartha651,

Thanks for the shoutout!

A teacher of mine said once that a person who was good in one way wasn't necessarily good in others. He said this while teaching a graduate seminar on American modernist writers, specifically in reference to Pound. This teacher, who actually served in the war against the Fascists, also pointed out that Pound's preoccupations were so weird that the fascists didn't know what the hell to make of him either. On the subject of his politics, Pound's contemporaries (including his admirers) thought him a bore. No one took that stuff seriously, it was totally off the wall, and oddly, he remained, apparently, throughout his long life, a rather genial man. People liked him for some reason. Bad ideas in a good head. It happens.

The standard biography of Hemingway was written by a man who came, in the course of writing it, to loathe him violently. This is an occupational hazard of writing scholarly academic biographies, especially when such biographies are written by people of less robust imagination than their subjects. Well, this occupational hazard has become Standard Operating Procedure.

It happens in all sorts of ways. You notice personal spite, the ascription of the meanest motives to every action, for example. Or the biographer is committed to some interpretive scheme -- amateur psychoanalysis was very popular for a very very long time -- and when his subject does not act in conformity with what he is supposed to do under this scheme the poor dead writer comes in for a scolding, their politics, the list could go on and on. Sometimes there isn't even hostility. Just the spectacle of a boring mind drawing a total blank in the presence of an interesting one.

The real lives of writers can disappoint us; but part of the point I'm making is that we read them not for the facts of their lives but for the truth of our lives. How they get to the point of being able to tell us that out of the truth of their sometimes quite messy lives -- one of my favorite writers is William Hazlitt, and his life was a disaster -- is the part about writing that I suppose people mean when they say it cannot be taught.

So in the first place a writer may be a jerk, but there is also a good chance his biographer hates him. Second, they may indeed be jerks, but there are jerks and then there are jerks. There are some jerks we love because they cannot help speaking the truth, because we know they know what is going on, and one of the reasons why they are jerks is because they are in pain and at some level we understand that that pain is legit. They are jerks in the small things but not in the big things. Hemingway, for example, was a man in great psychic pain for most of his life, and in the later part of his life, he had physical pain too. Real clinical depression ran in that family. But he made something with it, and that something had its own life and integrity, and he tried to beat his demons through art. There are so many meaner ways to be. And everybody in those days was a drunken asshole, by our standards. People drank for a living.

I come back to the idea of the duty to truth: Hemingway, I think, in his best work, showed a commitment to truth and to art that was way beyond his personal life. That's what made him bigger than life, not all the macho stuff. I say all this and I don't want to give you the impression that Hemingway is a great favorite of mine; he isn't.

Let me put it this way, to see if that helps. I would have more faith in a biography of Carlos Baker by Hemingway than I have in Carlos Baker's biography of Hemingway. Hemingway has shown himself -- at least intermittently, which is more than a lot of us will do -- master of the bigger truths. Baker has the facts, but his judgement as to those facts is bad, and that judgment is related to that higher truth of fiction. Hemingway would be good for the facts and the truth. So I can forgive him getting into a stupid drunken brawl with Wallace Stevens, and for being catty about William Faulkner, a writer whom I much prefer to read.

Kia said...

Oh my god, that was so long, sorry. I need a life.

driftglass said...

kia,
You said it well.
All I have to add is, "Ditto Poe."

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