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.
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.
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”.