Thursday, March 26, 2009

A nonfiction manifesto

An excerpt of an email from the great poet Andrew Aulino:

Yes I was once browsing in Skylight Books in Los Feliz (next neighborhood to the West of me) and found myself stuck at a reading of some CNF, read in the "poet voice," and felt, both because of the subject matter and its dull insightlessness (wish this were German "sowohl ihre Themen als auch ihre Einsichtlosigkeit wie ihre (deswegen) unverdiente Gefuehlsanspreuche) and the emotional demands it made on the reader, though it hadn't earned them. And while she had subtler manipulations I won't get into, she seemed to assume, indeed demand that we feel deeply moved for the simple fact that she was discussing some certain subject, that she had a role in it, that it must be interesting, despite the fact that, Jesus Christ, I felt about to turn into some tusked, cloven-hooved beast, whirling and driven by some bibliophobic hormonal response into destroying the store and every copy of the book she was selling; indeed I felt that this transformation was taking place, for my knees began to get weak and my vision went from double to fully blurred, but it was merely my going into a coma of boredom, and my girlfriend at the time had to drag me out of the store, looping her arms under my underarms,, and slapping my face in the cold (it was winter) night air, and it took some good strong coffee, a big bottle of mineral water and the reading of some H.D. to fully restore me to my former state of (relative) wellness...

My thoughts below the fold.


For those of you who haven't spent a good part of your lives trying to figure out what "creative nonfiction" means, I'll give defining it a shot: creative nonfiction is an attempt to turn actual events into literary art. Implicit in this is an invisible contract with the reader stating that all efforts have been made to ensure that what is written is "real." Many will disagree with this. That's fine. I tried.

No form of art has been more heavily criticized since the Maplethorpe/Jesse Helms fiasco. People like James Frey, author of A Million Thousand Gazillion Tiny Little Pieces Inside Pieces of a Tiny Million Slices of Pieces or something like that, have been held up as exemplars of something terrible, something so insidious that they must be turned into characters who make Dick Cheney look like Rudy Huxtable. The man lied to Oprah, for Christ's sake. An American cannot commit a more heinous crime.

Out of all this came an unwritten rule that all CNF writers have been asked to follow: Your narrator, no matter what, must be reliable. An unreliable person, a real person like Humbert Humbert, has no place writing nonfiction. They can't be trusted, after all.

This makes sense if you're Truman Capote or Stephen Jay Gould, writing analytic, journalistic or historical creative non-fiction. But so much CNF is personal; it, unfortunately, deals in the totally and completely unreliable realm of memory. It's like buying pot off a dealer you don't know. You might end up with the best high of your life, but you also might end up naked in the back of a police car barking at the moon and propositioning the cop.

For the sake of argument, I would venture to say that anyone writing memoir or personal essays with a reliable narrator is being more dishonest than someone who writes with a reliable one. If you have something interesting to write about from your personal life, you are no doubt a complete and utter mess. I know maybe three CNF writers I would trust, and they all write analytic stuff. That doesn't mean I don't like the other three dozen I know. That doesn't mean I don't want to hear their stories. Memoir and personal essay writers who should be using unreliable narrators but pretend to be reliable end up causing pain just like poor Andrew suffered. Like Oprah suffered. Like every fan of the memoir form has suffered. It hurts the soul.

So to all of those CNF writers out there, give the unreliable narrator a try. Be honest about it. Let the reader know they shouldn't believe everything you say by being obviously unreliable because, let's face it, you are obviously unreliable. Pretending not to be is the lie! Editors, you should love this! It gives you the cover you need. Start accepting CNF books with unreliable narrators. Please, for the love of God. Something's gotta change or Andrew's burning down some bookstores.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

If I had to choose a time in history to be writing, it would be now. This is not a good thing.

I've been out of town for awhile. The city was getting to me. At the bus stop the other day, this Latina woman walked up to me, spit on some poor Mexican guy, and said, "Mexicans. Dirty filthy Mexicans. Disgusting." Then she said to me, "Sir, aren't they filthy?" or something like that, all in a very thick accent, and I said, "No thank you" and got on the bus. Before I could find a place in the bus to stand, the bus driver yelled at some Asian guy, telling him to go back to his own country, and then, once I was lucky enough to get a seat, this self-described "OG," who must have been in his sixties, was giving this 17 year old kid advice on how to make money dealing drugs and robbing people without going to jail. I don't think the advice was very good. I decided to run away for a few days to stay with my friend Corey up in Ukiah. It was amazing.

The first night, we went to this playground by his house and climbed up and slid down these slides that must have been somewhere between one and two stories tall. I cracked my knee pretty good, and I used muscles that have been neglected for a decade, but in all, I haven't had so much fun in a very long time. After the slides, we went to the swings, and I saw this humongous "spaceship" that was actually a climbing contraption for kids. At night, the thing looked magical, like it was out of some bad 60's movie. The insides were made of unpainted stainless steal, and it's red shell had chipped paint. It was made of bars for kids to climb on, bars that were the same width and distance from each other that you'd find in a jail cell. It was twice as tall as me. I yelled "spaceship!" and ran to it, but then I saw this fence around it, and Corey said, "No, we don't like that spaceship." And I looked at him, and he said, "A kid died there."

I'm frustrated, but I'm also happy. I'm happy to be writing. I wrote a lot this weekend. I wrote a lot of fiction, but in between the fiction, I wrote quite a few polemical rants, rants that don't really have any value and would never be publishable but that I want to share somewhere. So here is one of them, with all its levity and humor, for all twelve of you to read, below the ghetto fold made up of six dashes.


I will start by reiterating what has been said by people smarter than me: Our species has one hell of a genetic mutation.Our large foreheads ... our large brains ... allow us to do amazing things. We can remember. We can manipulate our surroundings. We can learn how to solve unbelievably complex problems, at least compared to most other species on earth. And this mutation has made us incredibly successful. Our population has exploded. We went to the moon. We built entirely new surroundings that were more suitable to our needs as a species. But these things will most likely also kill us all because we never understand entirely what we're doing until after it's done, and it has a habit of making our lives unpleasant in the meantime (think cancer and global warming and war). What's worse: this adaptation allows us to be aware of the fact that we're killing ourselves, but we are way too inflexible to do anything about it, so we're all gonna die. The end.

No, not the end. What makes life interesting is watching all the irony in this. It gives me the same sort of sick pleasure I get out of watching Law and Order or CSI. It's totally predictable and there's nothing I can do to change the outcome, no matter how much I want to.

Jesus Christ. I sound like Easy Rawlins or Sam Spade. But it's hard not to. Here are the facts:

We (and I will not say our government because we are all responsible) tortured people, many of them innocent, with beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse and abject humiliation. STOP! Don't roll your eyes and say, "Here we go again. More depressing news." Put yourself in their situation. Imagine yourself tied to the rafters for days in a standing position, being kept awake, beaten and fondled, all while you knew that the same type of people who were beating you were bombing your family with depleted uranium, poisoning their drinking water, giving your children and grandchildren horrible disfigurements, and mocking everything you believed in.

Amid all that, we were (and are still) in the midst of a festival of greed, buying things to distract ourselves made from what amounts to slave labor. STOP! It just doesn't seem real, does it? You never see these people. You can go see for yourself, I hear. There are people working in sweatshops under the ground in Chinatown here in San Francisco. If you hang out long enough, you can see them with your own eyes. Every once in a while, an elevator will come up out of the sidewalk. For a split second, you can see the people below, sewing for more than 12 hours a day.

We continue to boil ourselves to death with carbon dioxide. STOP! If you live near an ocean, there's a high likelihood your home won't be there in fifty years. You know? That place you sleep at night, and keep your belongings, and make love. If you don't live near an ocean, guess who's coming to visit?

People keep telling me that writing is a dying profession. If I had to choose a single time in history to write, it would be now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

News and narrative

I know I'm not the first person to ever make the point that newspapers tell stories with their headlines. Usually, people take a look at individual stories to make this point. Today, to save you time, I'm going to summarize the story that the whole front page (or main page) is telling, in summary form, so that you don't have to read them. I am doing this because I am bored.

BBC News: We are fucked. Fucked I tell you! Baghdad is still a catastrophe and the oceans are coming. Fast. The market's doing better, though, but that's kind of like saying the Polar bears had a good day. They're still gonna die.

Drudge: Stocks are a little better, on paper, but we are fucked. This is all Obama's fault. He is failing. His message sucks. Pelosi is evil. We are all going to die because Obama doesn't care about terrorists. The end of the free market means the end of freedom. Even chimps are attacking us. Be afraid.

Huffington Post: The Republicans are self-destructing, which is a good thing because they're so evil they tried to kill our own soldiers. The wars are not going particularly well, and Obama's economic team is in some rough waters, but don't worry! Look at the funny pundits! They are so cute and silly and angry! Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart and Ann Coulter and Bill Maher! Haha! They don't like each other! It's like WWF, only they're out of shape, and with the exception of Jon Stewart, slightly stupider than any professional wrestler.

Politico: The Democrats are scary good at everything they do right now. They're like some Orwellian superpower, masterful at manipulating public belief. The Republicans are overwhelmed but tirelessly trying to fight the mystical Democratic power.

The New York Times: Hey! Except for all the death in other countries, it's actually a pretty good day! Obama wants good things done, he might actually get them done, the DOW is going UP today, and China has all kinds of bad news, which is good news for us! Drink up!

Talking Points Memo: Republicans are dumb. They don't know what they're doing. Look at them. Stupids. And if you thought Republican politicians were dumb, look at the Republican pundits. We used to be the best investigative reporting team around, during the Bush Administration, but now that Obama's in power, we're going to spend all our time kicking Republicans while they're down. Because God knows no Obama officials will ever do anything wrong, especially because Democrats have almost all the power (no Supreme Court and no 60 Senators), and we all know people with that much power would never need any investigation.

That is all.

Nerdily yours,

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Yes, I am starting a blog

I have an admission to make. I hate the internet.

Now I'm not trying to be a crotchety old malcontent who mutters on and on about how technology ruins culture. This is a blog. It is intended to be a place of undiluted self-importance. I don't hate the internet for what it does to society, or to other people, or to those kids today who text each other when they're sitting together on the bus. I hate the internet because of what it does to me.

I can't sit down and write. I can't have a conversation with someone without thinking about an email conversation I'm in the middle of. For Christ's sake, I can't even sit down and read a book anymore. To test this, yesterday, as I was reading one of the best books I've read in a long time (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, if you're curious), I counted the number of times I checked my email during a three hour reading session. The number: 14.

This is not because the book bored me. In fact, I was in love with the book. I couldn't put it down. But I also happened to be in the midst of some administrative, bureaucratic bullshit, the details of which I won't bore you with, and the internet forced me to think about what I wasn't enjoying obsessively while ignoring what I was enjoying right in front of me. It's the technological equivalent of being 13 and able to call that girl you like as many times as you want without scaring her away or pissing off her mom.

The problem, I think, is that the internet is changing my brain. A UCLA scientist named Gary Small says that brain activity shifts dramatically and quickly when non-Internet users start to use. I've been using it for a long time. And a guy named Nicholas Carr argued in an interview with The Sun that the internet may be turning us all into a distracted mass of humanity that lacks "depth of knowledge." (He also, for the record, says it is making us increasingly efficient at processing knowledge.) He may be overstating his case and overgeneralizing. I don't know. But for me, I can say unequivocally that he knows what the fuck he's talking about.

It is tempting to blame the internet for everything wrong with my life. And I really want to. I hate it. I want it out of my life. I wish I could give it a long, long noogie until it went away for awhile, like an annoying younger brother. I wish I could run into it in a dark alley and, as my girlfriend says, "stab it in the goiter." I wish I could steal its kidneys and sell them on the black market. I wish I could put it in one of those James Bond death machines where the internet is held above a shark tank while acid slowly eats away at the ropes that are keeping it balanced precariously above a snapping Great White.

But in the end, I have to admit to myself that the internet is a thing, not a living creature, and I have to treat it as such. Therefore, I must blame myself. The easiest solution would be to stop using the internet entirely. Unfortunately, I can't. A writer who does not use the internet is like a dictator who doesn't use violence. It just doesn't work.

So instead of obsessively checking my email, I'm going to obsessively write blog entries. I'm going to use all of this obsessiveness to my advantage, to practice doing what I love: writing. So that's what I'm going to do. Now hold me to it.