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Why We Go There (and Away We Go)

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why We Go There (and Away We Go)


"They sure as hell wouldn’t write a book which had a faint threat of becoming a bestseller that would eventually be made into a big screen movie so that everyone and their mother could analyze their utter moral degradation."


Fuck yeah I would.

That is from Kyrsten Bean's The Stifled Artist's Blog (http://tinyurl.com/7m2398y), which you may recall ran an interview with me a while back (http://tinyurl.com/7ybqusd).  Kyrsten's fate and mine have become somewhat intertwined.  In addition to the interview for her blog, she also interviewed me for the paper where she works (http://tinyurl.com/7m4uylf).  Kyrsten contacted me a few months ago after having read this blog and discovering we lived in the same town (El Cerrito) and shared a similar...background.  She's since read for my reading series, Lip Service West, a couple times, and, a musician as well, she'll be playing a few songs the night of the big LSW fundraiser, Friday, Match 9, 50 Mason Social House, SF.  See you there.

You might've also seen Kyrsten's name in some of the same online journals I've been in lately, like the inaugural issue of PoV (http://issuu.com/povmagazine/docs/pov_issue_001/1).  We are an incestuous lot.

I was reading her Stifled Artist yesterday (which is a huge compliment, since I read so few of them.  They tend to be pretty self indulgent, y'know?), and she touched on an interesting topic, or at least one that has always interested me. Discussing one of her favorite books, Jerry Stahl's junkie memoir classic Permanent Midnight, she asked a somewhat rhetorical question about why an author like Stahl, having cleaned up and left that life behind, would want to delve back into the muck and mire and relieve painful, humiliating memories.  

She speculates that "[w]riters and musicians (of this kind) are some sick fuckers. We like to go there.  Not because it feels good, necessarily, but because we feel compelled to dig in the dirt, to get to the grit of it, to cut ourselves open and peer in with a giant magnifying glass — like we’re ants who use the light of the sun to fry our own selves, and plan on documenting the experience later."

I wrote to Kyrsten that while I found her subject compelling, I, respectfully, disagree with her reasoning.  Of course, I have no authority to speak for ex-junkies everywhere, but there are a few governing characteristics of our ilk, the primary one being the incessant need for outside validation.  Which is where the drug came in in the first place.  Our self-worth is like an SUV; it gets shitty miles to the gallon, forever in need of fuel in the form of compliments and accolades to keep running, seven feet at a time.

Permanent Midnight is a terrific book, and a really good movie.  Or at least it was. I've since gone back, and like re-watching Heathers, it didn't hold up so well with subsequent viewing.



Re: Heathers, I remember reading somewhere that the writer, listed by IMDB as Daniel Waters, only listened to the Replacements and Cocteau Twins while writing the script.  You can see that influence pretty clearly.  Plus, the fucking school is named "Westerberg."

I don't know what was inside Stahl's head when he was writing.  I know a few people who've met him and say he's sort of an asshole.  Which isn't surprising.  His book reads like he's an asshole.  But there are probably people who say the same of me, and if I ever attained his level of success, I'd probably say it about myself.  The only thing that teaches humility is being humbled, and it's a lesson that can be quickly forgotten.  Permanent Midnight has had a huge impact on my work, writing, and life, regardless.

I've often asked that question myself.  Why go back and write about that past?  Or rather, I've had it asked of me, mostly by Big Tom.  But it was never really a choice. What the fuck else am I going to write about?  My life of privilege?  Want to hear what I benched yesterday? (310 lbs.)  Maybe you'll find my game of fetch with Lucky compelling? Good writing is about conflict.  I don't have much of that these days.  Except the war that rages in my head, and I pay a psychiatrist to listen to that shit so you don't have to deal with it (much). You're welcome.

The truth is I have no qualms about offering an intimate glimpse into my life, past, present, future, and clearly enough of you like reading about it (we finally cracked 10K page views for last month) that I must be doing something right.  And a lot of what I write about is the past.  What else can you write about?  Like a keyboardist who only knows one song...


It's a trade off.  A few embarrassing stories, of which my memoir is chock-full, for unconditional love.  Like Lowe and Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb, you make that trade every time.  

It isn't that tricky, really, when you break it down.  It's what I do.  I make art.  And I share it with anyone who wants to see it.  I've been doing this shit since I was kid in grade school, drawing cartoons of classmates, basking in the attention those pictures would receive.  It's how I was known in school.  I couldn't throw a ball far, wasn't tough enough for football (I used to be a lot smaller).  Pretty girls weren't going to notice me.  The only way I could distinguish myself was with the writing and words and drawings and songs.  It got people to pay attention, and it made me feel like I mattered.  And despite my contempt for mankind (as a whole), I need to be noticed and feel like I matter.

Kyrsten proposes that there is a thrill, like returning the site of a murder, for both writer and reader, in "going there." I think that's somewhat true, but more so for the latter than the former.  When I had an agent and we were pitching the memoir, I'd written as such in the proposal, highlighting the voyeuristic qualities of the drug memoir, which, lousy current publishing climate aside, do have a long history of selling, and when they hit big, like Stahl's, they hit huge.  For the writer, however, I don't think it's that convoluted.  



And writers write.

Problem is there are a lot of us ex-addicts with a story we want to share.  The trick is convincing someone that yours offers what the others do not (and to all the publishers out there, mine has lots and lots of tits).  I'll let you know how that turns out.  And you know I won't have to go far to do that.


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3 Comments:

At January 18, 2012 at 10:42 AM , OpenID thestifledartist.com said...

Nice to know my blog inspired another blog about another angle
Of this topic-- of course, the first paragraph you quoted
is tongue in cheek. I've been asking myself lately
Why these stories matter, why mine in particular matter, and wondering
If they are of interest to anyone but me...and I think
writing them is like licking a cavity or something,
but at the same time, it is cathartic and necessary and I feel
compelled to do it.
I love dark, dirty memoirs about drugs and celebrity ruin.
I like writing stories that make people squeamish.
I dream of success, sometimes, but I accept that I am one little
drone in a game of thousands, even millions
of players.
But. I do admit. Attention is nice. I'd like to think
I'm learning to let other people have the spotlight, sometimes.
It's something that came of doing journalism on the side,
telling other peoples stories. Trying to realize other people
matter, too.
and I still don't feel like I've answered the question of why we do it.
Yes-- these are the stories I have. Addiction, dating a sadistic rock star,
behavior modification school, hitchiking across America at age 14.
It's interesting to me-- and I don't know many people who
I've heard talk about the last three things, so I'm
wanting to write about them because sometimes I wonder
Why the hell my life has been so weird. and that's
Just scratching the surface on weird shit.

 
At January 18, 2012 at 11:06 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

I was just writing a friend about this. I think I tend to focus on the attention angle because it's a bit more self-depricating, which is my sense of humor. Like anything else in writing (and life), it's multi-facted and a one-note explanation doesn't suffice. As for letting others have the spotlight, I'm with you. It's the reason I try not to read at LSW (unless someone drops out or it's Litquake). It's nice approaching the show from a different perspective...

 
At January 25, 2012 at 12:07 AM , OpenID thestifledartist.com said...

About that multi-faceted thing...

http://thestifledartist.com/2012/01/24/why-do-we-go-there-part-ii-why-i-go-there/

 

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