October 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Not for Sale: Reading Michael Greenberg’s Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life

As a New York writer, Michael Greenberg has done lots of things to make ends meet. He’s sold eye liners, compacts, and lip gloss on the street, teeming up with another street peddler who specialized in churros (“belleza y comida”). He’s waited tables, taught Spanish, driven cabs and limos, been a ghostwriter, worked as an interpreter at criminal court, worked a graveyard shift sorting mail at the U.S. Post Office, and written the voice-over narrative for a documentary about the majesty of golf. But the title piece in his collection isn’t about begging, borrowing, or stealing to make ends meet. It’s about the soul theft that happens when you write about a friend in fiction, or in memoir.

I got Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine from the library at the same time I was reading Jenny Diski’s brilliant little book The Sixties. Hurry Down Sunshine is a memoir about his daughter’s psychotic breakdown, and the Diski book has a chapter on the anti-psychiatry movement, the short-lived idea that “the mad” are having a sane response to an insane world, that their mysticism and creativity should be protected. She writes about therapists who rub themselves down with feces and holler at the universe because that’s what their crazy patients are doing down in the basement. And Hurry Down Sunshine raises all of those impossible questions -- what do you do if a loved one cracks up? How do you tell the difference between her madness and poetry, and artistic genius, and a spiritual, mystical breakthrough? After all, the confines of “normal” society has always been a wrong place for lovers and poets as well as lunatics.

So, Michael Greenberg writes about all of this with real delicacy. There’s something in his voice as a writer that I can’t adequately describe, but that makes his book special and will make any of his books special, and I decide to read all of his books in the future.

Then, I got the flu, and I ended up with Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life for flu reading, and it was just as good as I’d hoped. Greenberg gently nudges at all of my fixed ideas, entertaining me with crazy New York stories and provoking me to think fresh thoughts about family, class, race, madness, and especially about writing in 21st century America. It’s a collection of essays from the Times Literary Supplement, which I don’t read, so all of the essays are new to me -- quietly elegant, effortless, valuable, and perfectly crafted, like gems or teardrops.

Greenberg is a great chronicler of “writer’s life” indignities. At a reading from Hurry Down Sunshine in Southern California, five people show up, and one of them is “an elderly woman who spends the entire time drinking from a Santa Claus mug (on sale downstairs) and reading a book called Dewey about a kitten who was dropped in the after-hours book return box of a small Iowa library, enriching the librarian’s life.” There’s the crappy feeling of pumping out hack prose on cue: “As I set to work, a familiar dullness comes over me. The dullness of empty language.” And then there’s Ted Solotaroff, the Harper and Row editor who, in the early 1980s, rejected Greenberg’s novel with the note: “This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction. Good luck trying to find it a home.” Twenty years later, he runs into Solotaroff at a party: “He seemed withdrawn and tense. I mentioned, casually, the rejection note… He didn’t remember it. ‘Maybe it made you stronger. The name of the game is endurance. I’ve seen a lot of writers drop away after a few decent stories and disappear.’”

The essay “Beg, Borrow, and Steal,” isn’t about Greenberg’s daughter, Sally, or how she felt having her breakdown become a part of someone’s memoir. It’s about his friend and former landlord, Eric. Readers of Hurry Down Sunshine will remember that Greenberg humored Eric by reading manuscripts that he was sure would never be finished or published. A friend reports that the portrayal “stabbed” and “crushed” Eric. “Most people are disturbed when an experience they’ve had is told for them… What captures their attention is not the scrupulous portrait you’ve drawn, but rather the unpleasantness of seeing themselves as a manipulated object in the drama of their own life… Several readers had assured me that my portrayal of Eric was sympathetic -- ‘written with real fondness,’ one said. I knew this wasn’t altogether true, and that it made it worse for Eric that it seemed to be so. ‘You didn’t betray a secret,’ said the reader. ‘You didn’t make anything up. So where’s the problem?’ Eric had once commented on how closely I listened to him. Enough to steal a piece of his soul.”

I thought about soul-stealing through the rest of my flu reading. I read Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia and Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The Lover is brutally, horrifically autobiographical, the kind of book where the author turns herself into a character and murders herself six ways over in a spare, clean sweep. It’s a bit nauseating, but also a kind of masochistic triumph. I related to The Lover’s protagonist more than I normally relate to fictional characters, so it hurt to read, in a way that surpassed my flu-ey fever pains.

It made me think about whether, as an author, you can do to yourself in a book what Michael Greenberg did to Eric -- whether you can expose your nonfictional self as a joke or a fraud or an embarrassment or a nonentity or an animal. And I think you can’t, because there is always also the author part of you, who gets the surprise explosion of stories, essays, poems crashing into you and cracking you open, like unexpected sex with Zeus when he’s a lightning bolt. It might be pleasant and erotic, or it might be a bruising assault that leaves you hunched in the corner clutching your bottle of whiskey and praying to deities you don’t believe in. Either way, you’re less a “manipulated object” and more conduit for spectacular energy. Julio Cortazar describes this in an essay in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: “To write a story in this way is both terrible and marvelous; there’s an exultant desperation, a desperate exultation… The black mass takes shape as it advances… To write a story this way involves no effort, absolutely none; everything has already taken place in advance, at a level where ‘the symphony stirs in the depths,’ to quote Rimbaud, which is what caused the obsession, the abominable clot that has to be worked out with words.” Elsewhere he explains that he’s not aware of links between his stories because he’s not always sure what’s in his stories -- they come from somewhere foreign to him, like coconuts falling on his head. Writing is such a transformational experience that it makes up for how unpalatable the truth can be. Usually. Maybe.

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, there’s another amazing essay on Louis Armstrong, about the 1952 concert that first gave Cortazar the idea of “Cronopios.” In Cortazar’s world(s), Cronopios are the creative ones (Louis is a “super-cronopio”), Famas are the ones who run things, and Esperanzas are the desperate, but largely passive, strivers. Cronopios at the Armstrong concert are in the throes of ecstasy, unable to keep their Cronopio-butts in their seats, and “the Famas attending the concert by mistake or because they have to or because it costs a lot regard each other with polite reserve, but of course they haven’t understood a thing, their heads ache horribly, and in general they wish they were at home listening to good music selected and explained by good announcers…” I don’t think I agree with Ted Solotaroff that “the name of the game” for writers ought to be endurance. Better one poem of shattering beauty than a full life of ploddingly edited novels that seem somehow phony. It’s hard to work when there are people around who need someone else to select and explain their music for them. A lot of us don’t fit the current mold, and that’s not a sign of genius or of failure. It’s just that the mold is so incredibly pinchy and small and hard and... moldy.

I usually read memoirs as a guilty pleasure -- when Susanna Kaysen’s vagina hurts or if Marya Hornbacher, after years of bulimia and manic depression, comes to feel bad about her neck, I’ll be there. But “writer’s life” books make me feel shabby and nauseated and bad about myself, like googling ex-boyfriends. I’m so, so tired of reading about how writing should be demystified, how it doesn’t work the way Cortazar describes at all, how you toil at it slowly like you’re scrubbing a toilet, how the important parts are rewriting everything (preferably with the help of a gaggle of fellow workshop women) and killing your darlings and not getting personally attached to your work, how “good rejection letters” are a cause for celebration, and how you should take a class at Mediabistro or teach one at Barnes and Noble. I feel like Julio Cortazar is a jaguar and the “writer’s life” guidebook authors are plasti-wrapped microwavable dinners and I am... what? A wombat? A loris? Not a jaguar, but definitely a live creature, definitely one of the people flooding the aisles to curl onto a spot of floor and listen to Louis Armstrong, irritating the Esperanza ushers. But, somehow those guides for writers make me feel like I am the problem, like “being a writer” of that sort is something I just have to do even if I don’t want to, like waxing my pubes into a weird little landing strip or getting my teeth capped or having a 401K or reading tepid articles in the New York Times or watching the News at 11 or panicking about “swine flu” or giving up hot, fresh bread.

Beg, Borrow, Steal is sort of the opposite of those kinds of “writing-is-just-like-any-other-job-and-if-you-still-think-it’s-mystical-you’re-doing-it-wrong” books, in much the same way that Hurry Down Sunshine is sort of the opposite of other books about having an addicted, ill, or mentally ill child. Michael Greenberg doesn’t offer advice or sanctimony. He just writes about his life, and he does it the way Chagall would make a stained-glass window, using familiar materials and skills to create something delicate and undeniable and new.

The soul theft thing gets me thinking about Sherman Alexie. I’m reading his new collection, War Dances, and whenever I read him or watch his movies, I always wonder which details and characters are “true” and which are “made up.” I was surprised, after watching The Business of Fancydancing, to read an interview where Alexie explains that he’s not gay himself. I’d somehow, like a kid picturing “Carolyn Keene” as a Titian-haired detective, assumed that his protagonist was him, especially after that scene at the book-signing, where Seymour (played by Evan Adams) is surrounded by his fans, smiling, kowtowing and being worshipped at the same time. It made me wonder if maybe Alexie’s success has hurt him, as much as that sounds like a stupid cliché. I know that it is hard on good writers, on good writing, to be unread. But I’m starting to think it might be just as potentially damaging to get famous, especially if you become some exoticized spokeperson for something or other, the Haitian Writer or the Dominican Writer or the Native American writer. It’s probably fine if you’re an industrious, slick little spotlight-grubber who’s happy to trot out work that’s tailor-made for your audience, in collaboration with your editor and publicist, making a “product” that will sell as well as your last “product.” But what if you are a Super-Cronopio, like Sherman Alexie? Even if you are not marketed as an exotic, you become your own brand name.

Imagine if we found out that Sherman Alexie, like JT Leroy, was a front for some middle-aged white woman toiling away on an old laptop in California.

Alexie always seems to be dealing with this problem -- subverting it, making fun of it, buckling under it, writing through and around it, writing in spite of it. And every time I worry that it has hurt him too much to keep working, he writes something true. And I’ll never know whether it’s true or not. (From the introduction to Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart: “This one’s fiction, meaning it’s 76% true. Or it's a memoir, meaning it's about 76% false.”)

In the hilarious, tear-jerking title piece in War Dances, Alexie exposes all the lies in his own poem about his father as part of an “exit interview”: “L) You never owned a shotgun… M) You never said, in any context, ‘Once a thing tastes your blood, it will come for more.’ N) But you, as you read it, know that is absolutely true and does indeed sound suspiciously like your entire life philosophy.”

Imaginary people are born all the time in literature, like Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series (who was initially meant to be a little boy), but most characters in fiction as well as memoir are probably based on living people, like Sherman Alexie’s alcoholic dad. Once written, each is just as real as the next. But of course there must be people like Greenberg’s friend Eric all throughout history, victims of a neat sweep of a pen. It’s no accident that doppelgangers are considered a sign of impending doom for the person who sees his or her double wandering around, animated by some alien force. On top of that, there’s the creepy way that getting whacked on the head by Cortazar’s coconuts distorts space and time, so that sometimes you write something autobiographical, but before it happens in real life. Sometimes you meet an imaginary character from a story, and sometimes (probably often) a person a character in your memoir is based on becomes imaginary, with the memoir-version taking on a more vivid life than the original. (In an interview, Ariel Gore talks about meeting the old boyfriend from her more-than-half-true, more-than-half-fake book, and being unable to call him by his real name. She calls him by the name she made up for him.) Sometimes you do not come upon the authors who have influenced you most until years after you wrote the pieces they influenced. Sometimes this is more terrifying than fun, like having precognitive dreams. It reminds me of a painter I once interviewed -- a highly gifted one -- who found that his paintings started to stare back at him. He ended up hunched in the dark corner of his studio with insomnia, and then he spent the next four years painting flowers in vases. Until the flowers started to grow heads.

Cortazar writes that every time he has tried to revise a translation of one of his stories, “I have been struck by the degree to which the effectiveness and the meaning of the story depend on those values that give poetry, like jazz, its specific character: tension, rhyme, internal rhythms, the unexpected within the parameters of the anticipated, that fatal liberty that cannot be altered without an irrevocable loss. Stories of this type are affixed like indelible scars on any reader who can appreciate them: they are living creatures, complete organisms, closed circles, and they breathe. They breathe, not the narrator… the poet and the storyteller direct autonomous creatures, whose conduct is unforeseeable and whose final effects on the reader do not differ essentially from their effects on the author, the first to be surprised by his creation, a reader surprised by himself.”

Can a writer -- or a reader -- be surprised in the same way by a memoir or essay? Of course. It’s not the species of the creature that’s important, it’s the fact that it’s alive at all, a breathing thing with a heart and a brain and probably fur, rather than a plastic or lycra facsimile for sale by the snow-globes and Santa Claus mugs downstairs.

My final flu reading is John D’Agata’s anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, a masterfully fresh collection of inspired, global writing from 1500 B.C. through the year of my birth. D’Agata includes work that most people would classify as poetry rather than nonfiction -- bits of Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” and Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Edmond Jabès’ “Dread of One Single End.” It’s got pieces in it by many of my favorite authors -- Paul Celan and Clarice Lispector and Peter Handke and Duras and Cortazar and Jabès. Every single essay is introduced by one of D’Agata’s own little essays, and he’s kind of showing off, because a lot of them are just as wonderful as the essays in the collection. And, as if I weren’t impressed already (I was), he offers his own translations of the ancients. And, the Beckett. Basically, it seems like if he couldn’t find a translation he loved enough, he nipped in and did it himself. His versions of Theophrastus of Eressos’s “These Are Them” and Plutarch’s “Some Information About the Spartans” read like they were written yesterday and came out in some great underground journal. Beckett’s “Afar a Bird,” in D’Agata’s translation, rolls through my own torso and throat when I read it, like I’m on some crazy, otherworldly carriage ride over mucky, hilly terrain: “…I’ll put faces in his head, names, places, churn them all up together, all he needs to end, phantoms to flee, the last phantoms to flee and to pursue, he’ll confuse his mother with whores, his father with a roadman named Balfe, I’ll feed him an old curdog, a mangy old curdog, that he may love again, lose again, ruinstrewn land, little panic steps.”

“Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” asks D’Agata. “It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.” (My emphasis.)

Reading these essays, reading the Beckett four times, I’m still puzzling over why I find Michael Greenberg’s prose so special, why I find Hurry Down Sunshine so different from the spate of true and false misery memoirs that have flooded the market, why I find Beg, Borrow, Steal an antidote to the tedium of other “writer’s life” books. I have some sort of feverish vision of how words work, a vision of the street that the street hardly understands, a sudden ability to give a local habitation and a name to airy nothing, but then I lose it completely and roll over and read the Beckett again. Higamus hogamus. But, maybe the name of the game is endurance. Greenberg is a gentle writer, maybe one of the gentlest I have ever read, but the world of commerce isn’t gentle, not even a little bit. And of course I am misreading something else as gentleness.

It’s all there in Greenberg’s first essay. Greenberg is fifteen, taunting his father -- who works in a scrap-metal yard -- with a line from his latest poem: “Which do you think is worth more? Flesh or steel?” His father (who was “like Zeus’s father Chronos: he couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him.") tries to punch him, and breaks the fingers in his hand. “You have guts,” says Greenberg’s father, “but no common sense. One cancels out the other. A total waste.” He thinks being a writer is ridiculous: “Those notebooks you scribble in won’t get you on the goddamn subway.” Then again, maybe Greenberg’s father is like Sherman Alexie’s drunk, dying father -- a lie that is also the absolute truth. Or, a truth that is also the absolute truth. It really doesn’t matter exactly which. Something different from flesh or steel. Something that exists but, against all odds, is not for sale.