Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why We Write About Ourselves - Ed. Meredith Maran (2016)

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I wrote a 60,000 word shitty first draft of a memoir, to be published when I was 33, to document these first 33 years, with the thought that I might do it again at 66, if I live that long.  This, apparently, would be a horrible memoir, because no one wants to read about every meaningful event of some random person's existence.  No, they want to read about more specific events in your life, things that happened which were extraordinary--pain you suffered--which you can relate on a universal level.

This is the lesson I learned from Why We Write About Ourselves, another rare book that was sent to me by a publicist.  It's ironic to mention two gifts that two of my sisters received on Christmas morning.  My younger sister received a copy of Tales of Two Cities and my youngest sister received a book by Cheryl Strayed, which I think was The Beautiful Things.  My sister hadn't read my review, but she specifically requested the book, and I guess neither had my mother.  It's the only time I was "ahead of the curve" with this blog, and I hope that's the case here again: certainly my youngest sister would be interested in this one, as a fan of Strayed.  And frankly, between this and Tales, this was the better read.

Unfortunately, it won't be named to the Best Books of Flying Houses list, to make for a perfect trifecta with Raymond Carver and Patti Smith, but that is only because the form this book takes.  It is a different sort of book than I have ever read, and it reads more like a very long magazine article.  It's a very good article, but it's written to be read in little candy-sized nuggets.  I think that makes it especially appealing in today's socio-cultural climate of social media saturation and ADHD.  Basically, it is not aiming for canonical status.  Instead, this book is perfect for one of two things: checking out from the library, or gift-giving.  One could certainly purchase this book for themselves if they have made up their mind to write a memoir, but it's more of a book to expose yourself to once and learn from, rather than to pore over and savor for the richness of its language.

Still, I am very happy I read this book, if only because of its ulterior motive: publicity.  There are 20 chapters in this book.  Here are the writers that I knew going in: Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Daum and Edmund White.  There were some writers I didn't know, but knew of vaguely: Pat Conroy, David Sheff and Sue Monk Kidd.  For the 13 other writers for which I had no direct reference point, I was forced to be exposed to their minds: what they wrote about, why they wrote about it, and how.  And I will definitely be putting a few of their books on my reading list.

As previously mentioned with these anthologies, they make for difficult reviews.  I don't want to give short shrift to any of the contributors, but I don't want the review to go on endlessly.  I suppose the best thing to do is hit the highlights--for me, personally.

The first section that struck me as quotable came from Anne Lamott.  Now I have mentioned Bird by Bird before on this blog, somewhere, and upon reflection I had to read it for a creative writing class my senior year in high school, and I think it did inspire me at an impressionable age to throw my whole self into the writing thing, which was a huge mistake (however, it was not nearly as big a mistake as throwing myself into the whole lawyer thing--while the law may ultimately provide me with an avenue for an outwardly respectable career, it has impoverished me, robbed me of the last vestige of youth and destroyed my self-esteem and self-respect).  At least a couple times in this book, Bird by Bird is referred to as something of a "bible" of creative writing.  I'll have to check it out again.  Lamott's section in this book is a definite highlight:

"I wrote a piece about my mom in Traveling Mercies, and it really hurt her feelings.  I thought it would be such a great thing to tell the truth about my mom, because my whole life had been about about this made-up relationship, pretending I wasn't mad about the damage she'd done to me.
I wrote this very tender piece about her in her last days, when she had Alzheimer's.  It wasn't even a critical piece.  It just said that she could drive me crazy.  Sadly she didn't have bad enough Alzheimer's.  She read it and went bonkers.  My mom's twin sister called me up and said, 'You will never be forgiven for this, Annie.'
The crisis passed.  Then it turned out it was great to have told the truth about deeply crazily I loved her and that she'd been a handful."  (136)

These sort of themes emerge over and over throughout this book.  What will my friends and family think of the memoir?  How much personal information can I reveal about other people?  Do I have to reveal everything about myself?

Most seem to agree that, you should always make yourself look as bad as possible.  As a person that has often followed this rule without hearing anyone else say it, this felt comforting.  Moreover it feels refreshing in 2016, where our public image has to be so squeaky clean on social media and anything the slightest bit non-PC can end up leading towards ostracization from the in-crowd.

Most seem to follow the rule that, if they write about one of their friends, they send it to them and make sure they are okay with it being published.  I've never really had to do this because I've never been published in any meaningful way.  However my youngest sister became very upset when I made a reference to "wanting to kill my parents" in an unfortunate section of Think and Grow Poor, and upon reflection I should have edited that book more before publishing it in its mostly craptastic form.  You can't say I don't know anything about memoir writing.  I guess I just subscribed to the view that Edmund White expresses near the very end.  Actually, the last sentence:

"In general, I try to be very honest in my memoirs.  If I lose the friendship, so what?  I believe Milosz, the Nobel-winning Polish poet, who said, 'Whenever a writer is born into a family, that family is destroyed.'
On the other hand I sometimes say the best way to keep a secret is to publish it, since no one reads.  My books aren't indexed.  So anyone who wants to know what I wrote about him has to read the whole thing." (254)

Speaking of White, he is the only author to appear in both this volume and Tales of Two Cities.  He also makes this ridiculous, Wilt Chamberlain-esque claim:

"My protagonist in A Boy's Own Story was much less precocious intellectually and sexually than I was.  He was shyer.  If I'd written about myself as the freaky boy I really was, very few people could have identified with that novel.  That book came out in '82.  I don't think that was quite the period yet for my own true story.  In real life, I had had sex with five hundred men, most of them older than I was, by the time I was sixteen.  The boy in the book has one or two experiences, with boys his own age." (250)

My only response to that is, what the fuck dude!
But yeah, I'll probably check out some of his books.


There are a few glaring omissions from this volume.  It would have been remarkable to read a section by James Frey, but instead he is just referenced by another writer (again, White):

"There have been so many scandals about memoirs that weren't true.  The author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil confessed that he'd taken two phone conversations that were crucial to the story and collapsed them into one.  People were very disturbed when the author of A Million Little Pieces, which purported to be a memoir and was directed to a very vulnerable population of recovering addicts, admitted that his girlfriend hadn't really committed suicide.  There were some other events that he falsified, which led to his denunciation on Oprah.
That's a good example to keep in mind.  People do feel cheated when you lie in a memoir because you've broken your contract with your readers." (252)

I've never read A Million Little Pieces and I think most people nowadays would say it's not especially necessary to do so, but one cannot forget the cultural import that the book briefly possessed.  The other writer that should be here is Dave Eggers.  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has not been discredited and seems to defy most of the "rules" that these writers pronounce.  Eggers hasn't written anything like it since, but I still believe it's his strongest work and a true high watermark of the medium.  It's far from perfect, but I still think if I read it again 14 years later, it would make the Best Books list (The Real World interview chapter alone should qualify it).  Then again, this is an unfair criticism to make.  It's not clear if Maran reached out to these authors or if perhaps they could not write outside of their contracts with their current publishers.

I want to mention Meghan Daum.  I first became aware of her in 2008, when I was offered a limited free subscription to the Los Angeles Times.  I read her column every week and looked at her picture and thought she was cute and prayed that she would be my girlfriend.  She was cute and I liked what she wrote and she had a regular newspaper gig--did anything else really matter?  Subsequently I left L.A. and forgot about her.  Then, about a year ago, I came across her name in relation to her new book about making the conscious decision not to have children (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decisions Not to Have Kids) and my crush was briefly renewed at an even more intense level, until I found out she was married.  Also, she was 13 years older than me.  Not that that's a deal-breaker or anything--she looked good for her age.  I mean, she wrote an essay and then a book about being deeply indebted in her 20's called My Misspent Youth.  She also made me feel better about my newest NaNoWriMo project:

"That thing I said earlier about weighing each detail to determine whether it's worthy of inclusion?  That's for the third, fourth, or fifth draft.  Not the first draft.
The 'morality' of any given project has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  If you're writing about yourself just for the sake of writing about yourself, and other people are going to get dragged along for the hellish ride, it might it might be wise to examine the worthiness of the venture.  If you have something important to say that can only--or at least most effectively--be said through the lens of your own story, then go for it." (86)


Randomly, in here, I'd like to excerpt a brief snippet from Darin Strauss's section, as Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish are still fresh in our memories on this blog:

"Amy Hempel tells a good story about when she was in a beginning workshop with Gordon Lish.  He had the class write about the one thing that most embarrassed them.  The only restriction was that you had to write it as honestly as possible.  She said that out of that class of fifteen people, seven or eight published pieces they wrote in that class.  If you write something honestly, it'll be worth reading.  If you don't, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are.  The reader will feel it." (200-201)


I could mention Ayelet Waldman's contribution as another highlight, or the weird celebrity spouse connections (she is married to Michael Chabon, while contributor Nick Flynn is married to Lili Taylor (ironically another unusual crush of mine)), but the last thing I want to mention is the one bit of advice on which I do not agree.  Waldman mentions it as a piece of advice given by Chabon, but like other tips in this book, it shows up in various forms:

"When I first started writing, Michael told me that if you're not uncomfortable, you're not writing what you need to write.  If your work feels really safe and pleasant, there's a problem." (222)
"If you're not uncomfortable and scared while you're writing, you're not writing close enough to the bone." (230)

David Sheff also adds, "If what you're writing about wasn't intense, you wouldn't be writing about it.  Writing a memoir can dredge up every awful feeling all over again.  Make sure you have the support you need to make it through." (192)

Now of course, a memoir about how your life has been so happy and perfect will make people want to throw up, but there are brighter sides to life as well, and we should know because we've seen them, if not very often.  You know I have always wanted to read Morrissey's Autobiography.  Maybe that's not a memoir, though.

Sorry for that.  Anyways, sometimes when I'm writing a piece of creative non-fiction, there are some wonderful moments back in there that you want to share with a reader, you want to put them there with you, you want them to feel the happiness you felt.  Is that so wrong?

That's really my only criticism of the "wisdom" of this book.  I think it's okay to write about the times when life was good.  It's not a useless nostalgia trip.  It's a document that you were alive, and that it wasn't all pain and misery, even though much of the time it felt that way.

In short: read this book if you have any designs whatsoever on writing a memoir.  It's a quick read (less than a week), it's entertaining, and it should help put you in the right frame of mind to accomplish your task.  Also it lists all of these writers' Twitter accounts so I'm going to start following them right about now.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Just Kids - Patti Smith (2010)

Let's go old school with this review.  Oeuvre rule: I first became aware of Patti Smith 13 years ago, when I took a course called "Writing New York" at NYU.  The syllabus was interesting: it primarily consisted of a big anthology of essays and stories about New York written by famous authors over the previous 200 years, starting with Washington Irving's descriptions of the city as it existed in the financial district at its birth.  "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853) was also included, and moved me deeply.  There was some of the usual stuff by the Beats, and some ultra modern stuff, like the entirety of "Angels in America."  There were three even greater curve balls: The Dark Knight Returns, which I skipped at the time and would love 9 years later, The Velvet Underground and Nico, an album I already owned, and Horses by Patti Smith.  Our professors told us that Patti Smith was a poet that became a musician.  Later when I did mushrooms with a friend that year, he put on Horses and said that everyone had it wrong--psychedelic jam bands were not the preferred musical accompaniment to such an experience; Patti Smith was.

Fast forward 8 years and I'm doing an internship in law school and I see one of the co-workers with a copy of Just Kids under his arm.  I was aware of the book at the time and was interested to read it, but then I went on a dating website and "expanded my options" and who should visit my profile but some person announcing that they were currently reading Just Kids and I quickly realize this is the same cubicle neighbor I know and I "narrow my options" again in fear and embarrassment.  After a few weeks, I realize it's just one of those things and nothing awkward comes out of it but I've got to admit that it colored my impression of the book.  After M Train was released last year, I figured enough time had passed.

I've written previously about Patti Smith regarding her excerpts in Please Kill Me  and if it's not clear, I consider her a national treasure.  According to interviews, she wrote most of Just Kids and M Train at Caffe Reggio.  When I lived in NYC it was very exciting to think of who you might run into, but Patti Smith was probably right there the few times I went in that coffee shop and didn't even notice.  What would you say to such people, though?  I wouldn't know what to say until after reading this book.  It won the National Book Award and while I really don't like naming back-to-back reviews "Best Books," this is just such a charming story, with authenticity in spades, that it would be wrong to say a Raymond Carver biography is more worthwhile: this is the more digestible volume.

When I took that course, the professors made much of Smith's adulation for Rimbaud.  Now here, Smith finally writes about how she traveled to Rimbaud's hometown and stayed in the attic of an inn on a horsehair mattress and tried to summon his spirit:

"After a time, I left, and returned to the warmth of my hotel room and its provincial flowers.  Tiny flowers spattering the walls, just as the sky had been spattered with budding stars.  This was the solitary entry in my notebook.  I had imagined that I would write the words that would shatter nerves, honoring Rimbaud and proving everyone's faith in me, but I didn't." (230)

Smith writes of her worship of great artists and heroes from the past, such as Joan of Arc, Baudelaire and Jean Genet.  And it occurred to me gradually that Smith has achieved the status of a living legend.  Not only is she a national treasure, but a world treasure.  Her musical contributions stand on their own, but with Just Kids she adds another medium to her wheelhouse.  One expects that her versatility and passion will be worshiped by future artists.


Just Kids is as much about Robert Mapplethorpe as it is herself.


Okay I just want to say I can't really go on because yesterday marked the death of David Bowie and it's just way too emotional to be writing about artists from this era that shared so many similarities, particularly as I was situating Smith into a context as one of the Great Artists of our Time.  I don't want to say Bowie is any better than her (they were quite close in age and also worked in a variety of mediums) but I don't recall his being mentioned in Just Kids.  Many other musicians of the time appear (Bobby Neuwirth, Bob Dylan, Allen Lanier from Blue Oyster Cult (a pretty serious boyfriend of hers), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc.) but not so many from the so-called "punk era" (Tom Verlaine excepted), and perhaps M Train will have a Bowie story or two.  Smith did post a photo on Facebook yesterday of her and Bowie singing together in 2004 or 2005.  She seems to have a penchant for covering other artists' songs, so I would not be surprised if she shows up at some kind of NYC memorial for him, not unlike her rendition of "Perfect Day" after the death of Lou Reed roughly one year ago.

Sorry but the moment just needed to be cataloged.  I don't think I should write obituaries or elegies or memorials or remembrances or tributes because they don't get a lot of traffic, the exception being Roger Ebert because of his extraordinary influence on my critical work.


But yes, this is book is decidedly about Mapplethorpe and my knowledge of him went no further than  a few friends in college steeped in the art world trying to make me uncomfortable by shoving certain racy photos in my face.  That, and a brief snippet from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which considered a self-portrait he had taken.  That, and the last track from the AIDS benefit compilation No Alternative which ended with Patti Smith dedicating an ode to him.  Finally, of course, the stories already shared in Please Kill Me.

I pretty much knew he was gay, but he really comes off as being straight in the beginning, bi in the middle, and gay at the end.  That's not the way it always is, but that's the case some of the time, and probably a lot more often in the 60's and 70's.  He basically was Patti Smith's boyfriend for a couple years, and they lived together almost like a married couple.  Mapplethorpe's mother, actually, believed they were husband and wife up until the point of his death in 1989.  He came from a devoutly Catholic family and his parents did not believe a man and a woman should live together as they did unless they were married.  Even though he started going out with another dude, they continued to live together.  Patti continued to see other dudes, too.  In between, they were sometimes still intimate.  Their bond is a truly beautiful thing to behold.  If everyone was lucky enough to experience the love that they shared for one another, the world would probably be a much better place.


It's quite remarkable how Smith is able to pinpoint the exact date (Memorial Day, 1967) when both she and Mapplethorpe, states apart, committed themselves to the pursuit of art.  Also remarkable is the fact that Mapplethorpe is seemingly the first person that Smith meets a couple months later when she ventures out to make it on her own in NYC.  I've got to be honest here: I feel like she's stretching the truth just a tiny bit.  Like, I'm sure the events happened as they are described, but come on--Mapplethorpe probably did trip on acid that Memorial Day and make that drawing and Smith probably did genuflect before that statue of Joan of Arc in Philadelphia--attaching a greater significance to the situation is what one is supposed to do in a book like this.  And maybe she had a meaningful conversation with someone other than him that day when she tried to find her friends at Pratt, but whatever.  This is a super petty criticism.

While we do not live in New York in the 1970's, the great value of this book is its portrayal of "the artist's life."  They are poor and they live together and they support one another and they have moments of great luck and they network like crazy.  They live in the Chelsea Hotel and they go in the back room at Max's Kansas City and basically try to hobnob with the post-Warhol crowd.  Mapplethorpe sort of wants to be Warhol, and Patti tries on a variety of guises before settling into the one that fits.  Maybe that last sentence is inaccurate: Mapplethorpe also goes through a variety of experiments with different mediums before he is given a Polaroid camera as a gift.

Along the way Mapplethorpe is reduced to doing dishonorable things for money.

"He went to a placement service to get part-time work but nothing panned out.  Although he sold an occasional necklace, breaking into the fashion business was slowgoing.  Robert got increasingly depressed about money, and the fact that it fell on me to get it.  It was partially the stress of worrying about our financial position that drove him back to the idea of hustling.
Robert's early attempts at hustling had been fueled by curiosity and the romance of Midnight Cowboy, but he found working on Forty-second Street to be harsh.  He decided to shift to Joe Dallesandro territory, on the East Side near Bloomingdale's, where it was safer.
I begged him not to go, but he was determined to try.  My tears did not stop him, so I sat and watched him dress for the night ahead.  I imagined him standing on a corner, flushed with excitement, offering himself to a stranger, to make money for us.
'Please be careful,' was all I could say.
'Don't worry.  I love you.  Wish me luck.'
Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself? (135)

Another pleasure of this book is the effortlessly beautiful prose.  Smith is economical with her words and describes a vast array of events.  I can only imagine that she kept quite detailed diaries throughout these years.  Either that, or she is blessed with a photographic memory.  Actually, there are many photographs in the book, so perhaps it is a mix of the two: the photograph as diary.

There really is nothing "fancy" about this book, and its sheer modesty is responsible for a great deal of its charm.  Smith certainly could be said to be "artsy," but she is never arch or snobbish.  She comes off like an enthusiastic teenager, and her sincerity has an infectious effect on the reader.

I'm at a loss for what else to say about this book, except that, I wasn't going to add it to the Best Books list until I got to the end.  The ending is undoubtedly the most powerful section of the book:

"There was no one present save his nurse and she left us to ourselves.  I stood by his bed and took his hand.  We stayed like that for a long time, not saying anything.  Suddenly he looked up and said, 'Patti, did art get us?'
I looked away, not really wanting to think about it.  'I don't know, Robert.  I don't know.'
Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that.  Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint.  Robert beckoned me to help him stand, and he faltered.  'Patti,' he said, 'I'm dying.  It's so painful.'
He looked at me, his look of love and reproach.  My love for him could not save him.  His love for life could not save him.  It was the first time that I truly knew he was going to die.  He was suffering physical torment no man should endure.  He looked at me with such deep apology that it was unbearable and I burst into tears.  He admonished me for that, but he put his arms around me.  I tried to brighten, but it was too late.  I had nothing more to give him but love.  I helped him to the couch.  Mercifully, he did not cough, and he fell asleep with his head on my shoulder.
The light poured through the windows upon his photographs and the poem of us sitting together a last time.  Robert dying: creating silence.  Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express."  (275-276)

One could only pray for such a beautiful tribute from a friend.  Over the past week, I've seen tributes and homages like I've never seen before.  Bowie touched millions of lives and will be remembered as long as music is recorded.  Mapplethorpe doesn't possess quite the same cultural cache, but he was very close in age, and left this world far too early.  He will be remembered by anyone devoted to the art of photography, but he might have accomplished so much more.  Regardless, Smith has done her part to keep his memory alive to the wider public.  There are few better gifts that a human being may bestow.