September 7, 2018
Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
Once upon two years ago, I met a gentleman who was raised selling illegal whiskey in the dry counties of Arkansas. I asked this man umpteen thousand questions, and he seemed genuinely pleased to answer them for his umpteen-thousandth audience. His recollections—of shootouts and stings and hideaway stills—were electrifying. As an adult, he’d made an honest career as the owner of an auto shop in Orange County, but he had also dabbled in the creative arts since leaving behind his ‘shining youth. When I leafed through a 350-page memoir of those danger-quenched days, my heart sagged. I found this account, after the oral regalia I had been treated to over calamari and vodka, comparatively sleepy. Of course, the narrative was the same: only the narration was different.
At every bookstore there’s a table dedicated to books like this: inexpensively printed paperbacks wherein first-time authors unfurl their triumphs in business or give the nail-biting blow-by-blow of an experience of miraculous survival. Some of these books sell a zillion copies and get movie deals and become megapopular Oscarbait. Others scratch in a couple thousand, and then stagnate within a certain radius of personal acquaintanceship with the author. These might be the last pages the author ever writes; if so, it’s probably because the author is not a “writer.” They were not spurred to the pen by an ineluctable need to express themselves with its black blood, but by a more basic desire to share with others the passages from their life that appear to be the most interesting.
Unless YouTube suddenly becomes pay-per-view, I suppose books are still the most feasible commercial medium for autobiography. They are the traditional medium, anyway, and most people looking to cash in on their best dinner party stories are not also looking to spark a stylistic revolution. This leads to a lot of books written by people who don’t know how to write. (Professional writers don’t necessarily “know” how to write either—there is no one way to do writing correctly. But career writers seem by some admixture of luck and labor to stumble on a so-called “artistic” style, or at least an above-average ability to make stories readable.) At worst, these tenderfoots aspire clumsily to an imaginary muster they believe all writing is supposed to pass. They think too much about the peculiar shape of writing. At best, they eschew any unlikeness between writing and talking, and transcribe the same words they might use aloud when telling their tale between mouthfuls of calamari. They hardly think about what’s peculiar to writing at all. Rarely does a singular literary “voice” emerge from a first-timer; most of the books on the memoir table read as if they were ghostwritten by a single, unstoppable eighth-grader.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, artistic success is equated with scholarly laud. The artists who achieve it are typically exemplars of the singular voice. They revel in the particular, the symbolic, the idiosyncratic. They are allegorists and poets. They can be found on many a “Best What-Have-You” list, but might not be widely identified with their actual work. They are recognized for their recognition. Elsewhere, success is defined by consistent efforts that are consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of people. (“Regular employment” is another definition of success in the creative dimension, but it may be synonymous with this one.) These artists are entertainers. They revel in the relatable and the emotional. They care about their audience sometimes with a saintly intensity. They might not be widely recognized at all, but their work certainly is. Obviously, there is tremendous crossover between these two camps, but it is fortunate when that eighth-grader madly typing all of our biographies leans more toward obsession with the story than toward the details of delivery.
The reformed moonshiner I met was at the time making his second sally into the written word. He hoped to refashion his memoir into a screenplay, which he figured would make a snappier sell to production companies than the unadapted book. If prose had been unfamiliar territory, scriptwriting was the surface of Neptune. (Professional screenwriters do know how to write: there is a correct, saleable way to write an industry-grade script. Paradoxically, virtually every script written exactly in this mold is terrible and never gets produced.) For guidance he had lately been “attending” the online MasterClass in screenwriting helmed by Aaron Sorkin. He complained at length about Professor Sorkin’s fumbling diction and awkward performance at the virtual lectern. I smiled: the idea of today’s Ben Hecht being anything but the most sure-footed of orators struck me as unexpected and funny. After all, this is a guy known foremost for his ability to speak well.
Except, that isn’t what Aaron Sorkin does. Aaron Sorkin makes other people speak well. He cannot be less intelligent than his famously gabby mental offspring, but that doesn’t necessarily make him as quick or as cogent. It’s Allison Janney’s job to make it look easy. Maybe to the writer the words don’t come so easily. Maybe they instead come through a long, careful, painstaking distillation of cerebral fluid. Isn’t writing a stone-squeezing sort of vocation? What is the point of cultivating a distinctive textual timbre and time signature if not to be able to conduct a communicative tunefulness that eludes one’s internal wind section? Joan Didion described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” yet she’s produced some of the most praised language of at least five separate decades. This effort required a remove—a private buffer during the transubstantiation of thoughts out of the cognitive ether. (In my case, this means enough time to remember smart words.) Such a concession is seldom granted in face-to-face, real-time rapport, which affects the shy like quicksand. When words fail, you start to feel misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to sink into disconnection from your fellow human beings. A unique voice, in another medium, well-whipped and surely braided, can be the rope to pull yourself free.
These thoughts began to congeal after I watched the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The story is culled from Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling “failed experiment” in Gonzo journalism, a Frankenstein style of reportage that pursues the Truth (big T) through a self-aware refraction of events. The reporter steps into things and allows the mud on their boots to become part of the story. Thompson is the protagonist in this fact-tinged travelogue, playing the dual roles of boy-who-cried and wolf: he raises alarm over the meth-addled mange of Western society, and he does it by wearing that decay, almost proudly, on his own hide. Of course, he lathers on a lot of makeup and fiction (and, I hope, embellishes the amount of drugs involved).
The movie version has its fun visualizing this haywire carnival cruise, but loses some ineffable element that holds the book together. After the film I snooped through some of the DVD special features. A couple of these comprise Thompson riding around Vegas during production and grumbling like an ox on a motorcycle. I recognized that husky, clipped voice: for the last two hours I’d heard Johnny Depp mimic it precisely. I realized suddenly that his performance had been based on Thompson himself. Not the figurative Hunter S. who appears in the pill-popping Iliad, but the literal Hunter S. who merely inspired it (and wrote it).
Philosophically—in the name of gonzo science—this makes sense. Peeling away some of the disguise makes the underlying tension between fact and fancy all the more aggravating. But, aesthetically (which I guess means it’s a matter of taste) it just doesn’t feel right. The book’s narration has a perverse clarity that becomes garbled by Thompson’s intonation, which sounds like a sewing machine firing into a pillow. Depp lived in Dr. T’s basement for four months to absorb his mannerisms, and before this they were garrulous pen pals. One’d think this would give Depp a clement appreciation of the variables between written and spoken Thompsonese. Maybe it did. But when camera came to action, he opted to mix the dialects all up together, and that decision throws a monkey wrench in the gears of Fear. In trying to be faithful to his friend the good doctor, to teleport him intact into a story where he has already, in his own way, inserted himself, Depp denudes Thompson of the very trait that ever gave the story life: his real voice.
Now take someone like Chuck Wirschem, who wrote a book called HitchHiking 45,000 Miles to Alaska. His writing is casual and familiar, unaffected with obtuse adjectives and mindfully uncoiling syntax. It’s conversational, if not especially memorable. Excusing some extra tightness in the grammatical discipline, Wirschem’s style of writing probably does not fall far from his style of speaking, because he probably never pushed his writing to any extraordinary lengths, because he’s probably able to make himself understood with the first or second phrasing that he puts together. For other writers, there are astronomical units between their vocal loadouts. When one tongue is brought in to do the work of the other, things can bottleneck, and become a barrier to one’s ideas. Microsoft Word is then a necessary detour. But it can also be the scenic route, where even on the dourest, dampest, drizzliest of days, you might chance upon something beautiful, something one of a kind.
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