Twenty years ago, in 1994, the internet was very different from today. This was long before blogging, before the idea of social media (Mark Zuckerberg was only ten years old), and two years before Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the project that would end up becoming Google. It was the year that Lycos and Yahoo! (then known as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”) were founded, that someone registered www.sex.com, and the White House, then occupied by Bill Clinton, moved online at www.whitehouse.gov. It was also the year that Levi Asher founded a website called Literary Kicks at http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn.1 It was one of only 2,738 websites occupying a rather uncluttered and unorganized internet, and it survives today as one of the longest running websites around.
October 09, 2013
A few months ago, while my Twitter and Tumblr feeds were being entirely overwhelmed by the animated gif version of Tao Lin’s novel, Taipei, and it seemed that it was about to become 2013’s answer to Gangnam Style, I began exploring the Alt-Lit movement, and it struck me that this was a sort of update on the Beat Generation.
With the rise of Alt-Lit, we have seen a group of urban hipsters once again come to prominence and stamp their name on contemporary literature. Where Kerouac and Ginsberg brought spontaneous prose and jazz rhythm to their narratives, Alt-Lit writers have incorporated their own internet age-vernacular and challenged established literary convention.
Joyce Johnson is the guest. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is called The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, available now from Viking.
Kirkus calls it
An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer…Johnson [turns] a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time…there’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer. A triumph of scholarship.
Also in this episode: Joshua Mohr, author of the novel Fight Song, now available from Soft Skull Press. Fight Song is the February selection of The TNB Book Club. Publishers Weekly calls it “an interesting mix of Charles Bukowski and Tom Robbins, with a cinematic heaping of the Coen brothers for good measure.”
In 1959 William S. Burroughs released his classic novel Naked Lunch, developed the Cut-up Method that was to define his writing over the next decade, and discovered Scientology. By cutting up newspaper and magazine articles, liberally mixed with Scientology pamphlets and poems by Rimbaud, Burroughs and collaborator Brion Gysin were able to cut into the future and steal the technology requisite for the invention of the iPhone and Twitter. The result was a serious decline in the quality of Burroughs’ correspondence.
I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.
I was 18 or 19. It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive. Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.
Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.
I received an interesting criticism of my book today, posted by way of a comment on my blog.
You appear to be in some kind of Halloween costume. Jack Kerouac, I presume. How clever.
First off, you are “hitchhiking” on a dirt trail. Who are you expecting to pick you up? Completed (sic) staged. Buttoned down white shirt. Bright, clean and white. Wow, you must’ve been really living “On The Road,” right? Fake. I heard all the Beats traveled with cameras, backpacks, and briefcases. Oh, and over-sized aviator sunglasses of course. Funny, appears to be a bit overcast day in your photo. Sensitive eyes?
My guess is this is a bad photo op from some vacation you took. Painfully-staged “evidence” of hitchhiking abroad, living free, being on the road… Some half-witted attempt to feel like your (sic) walking in the path of your idols. Those you try so hard to imitate.
As I said, this photo sums you up. Fake, staged, phony. You remind of me a bad cover band. Desperately imitating true artists in an attempt to bask in their second-hand glory. Regurgitating their revelations with the depth of a kiddy pool. Putting on a bad costume and shouting “Yeah, me too!”
Quit jerking off drunk to faded pictures of Hunter, Jack, and Allen. You’re only making a fool of yourself.
To the first charge – of using a photo that was clearly staged – I plead guilty, your honour, but request leniency. Name one author whose author photo was taken without his or her knowledge. Unless I trawled Facebook for some drunken KTV shot taken by a friend, in which I was prominently tagged, I’d be unlikely to find a single photo that I didn’t authorize. Additionally, by actually agreeing to have the photo placed on the cover of the book, I’d surely be an accessory after the fact.
All right. But I need to get involved in another big project soon. Lately I’ve been working on compiling a collection—cleaning up my desk, that kind of thing. I’ve been going back to older work and revising. I’m trying to keep busy. But I’ve got an itch.
You know, ending work on a book is like the end of a rather intense relationship. You live in a story for months. Then you have to live with it. Alicia Stallings once said that a poet is never really happy unless he or she is in the middle of a poem. I think that’s true. It’s a very, very happy life living in a story while you are creating it.
The two books you’ve written, Huncke, which was published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland last year, and Soutine, which you finished writing this summer, are very different books. Where did they come from?
Huncke surprised me. I had gone, quite reluctantly, to a memorial reading that a friend was hosting for Herbert Huncke. I knew who Huncke was, but I didn’t know much about him. Nor did I care much, really. I have a great deal of regard for Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beats, but contemporary Beat poetry, per se, is not particularly appealing to me. Anyway, I went. And I wrote a sonnet—practice, as I recall—on the way home. It didn’t work, so I switched to ottava rima, wrote ten stanzas and figured that was my poem. Well, that ended up as Canto One, the shortest of a twelve-canto cycle of tales. I warmed to Herbert Huncke in the process. Soutine, on the other hand, I approached fully conscious of the poem as a book-length poem. While Huncke took about two months to write, Soutine took a year. It is also about three times as long as Huncke.
Who are these guys?
Well, Huncke was a progenitor of the Beat movement. He innovated the Beat life, as it were, and Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac lived a bit of their lives vicariously through him. He is in their books in one form or another. Soutine was perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th Century. He, Beckmann, and Bonnard are the big ones for me. He was a Russian Jew who painted in Paris and died in a roundabout way as a victim of the Holocaust. He brought the grand traditions in western art into something like the modernist idiom. But he was his own man, which is why he is not very well known. His roommate, Modigliani, a lesser painter who is quite well known, recognized Soutine as a genius. Soutine’s life story matches van Gogh’s for sheer drama, which doesn’t hurt when you’re writing his life story.
So, you knew a lot about Soutine, and very little about Huncke when you started these books.
Right. And as it turned out, I did weeks of research writing Soutine and almost none writing Huncke. I used old Herbert as a diving board to write about America. I actually invented my own Herbert Huncke, based on what I’d heard at the memorial reading, which was kind of an all-over-the-place group performance. But Herbert Huncke lends himself to being invented. With Soutine, I put myself into the protagonist’s life. Don’t get me wrong about the research—the book is very much an historical verse novel, but I did not work from notes. Certain scenes and encounters are entirely imagined. Soutine also has a parallel narrative, a memoir describing my discovery of art, of Soutine. It captures certain revelations that occurred in writing the book. Writing it was very much an experience of writing poetry. It never felt like I was writing a term paper. It felt more like I was flying a small airplane.
Give me a little bit of the technical stuff, but keep it down.
Sure. Huncke is written in ottava rima, as mentioned, the verse form of Byron’s Don Juan—I invoke Byron, or a Byronic hero, in the first Canto. It is a bit of a picaresque gallivant across a big swath of American history with sections concentrating on art, literature, and music. Somehow I managed to sidestep the Civil War, but nobody’s called me out on that. Soutine I started in blank verse, but I very quickly started over in terza rima. That form ended up having real resonance in the parts with Modigliani, who loved Italian poetry and actually recites from Inferno in the poem. Terza rima, as we know, sustains an epic. My model, really, was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. He used the form very gracefully in that poem.
You write almost exclusively in form.
Well put. Yes, I love formal poetry. Writing it and reading it. I compare writing in form to the exercises in art school where you draw without looking at your hand, only at the model. You produce a picture that is entirely yours but that would never have materialized if you kept your brain in the game, measuring the space between knuckles and knowing there are five fingers, etc. The picture is strange, yet familiar. You have to do it many, many times to get the hang of it, but the immediate results are stunning even in the earliest drawings. Similarly, making a rhyme and keeping the rhythm forces you away from what occurs immediately in your head, from what you already know or intend. It internalizes the thought processes, ideally subjugating it to unconscious feeling and experience. That is where the imagined scenes in Soutine come from. The counting, the formulaic part of writing metrical verse is incidental. Writing in form often results in a poem that you could not have imagined writing. But imagination has a lot to do with getting you there! It’s a paradox. A really beautiful one.
How about guiding principles? Who are your masters?
Well, I can point to some great ones in music, poetry, and painting with whom I associate an idea or guiding principle. First, there is Duke Ellington, who says we must find a way of saying it without saying it. Then, there is Rainier Maria Rilke, who, I am told, said that the truth is buried under a pile of facts. I can’t find it anywhere, but I believe it to be his observation. Who else would say something like that? And then there is George Inness, the American landscape painter, who reminds us that knowledge must bow to spirit. Put all three together, and there you have it.
This from someone who has written two book-length poems filled with facts and things that he knows?
Indeed. But that is the beauty of poetry. The chance to come up with something better. We all have information, knowledge, and something to say. But if we surrender to feeling and experience, the rest becomes something like technique or ink. They are vital to the process almost on a physical or structural level. The verse comes from within. It strives for the truth under all the facts in a way that cannot occur in the writing of prose—I’m a journalist and editorial writer by day. I know. Verse conveys what truth it gleans via a kind of spiritual channel. What moves us in a poem? It is almost impossible to answer that question. It really has little to do with what the poem says. There is a lot of historical information in my two books, but the narrator is pervasive. I record my experience of living the story and I try to subjugate the facts to that experience. The autobiographical tracks in Soutine are there to personalize Soutine’s life and invite the reader to connect with Chaim on a more visceral level than might otherwise occur. I make myself a foil to the hero, which I don’t consider hubristic—I paint, and I’ve lived painting for a log time, during which I internalized Soutine’s art and his story. I’ve been a carrier, so to speak. I have to say that I am very anxious to do this kind of thing again. I have my eyes on Janis Joplin to round out a trilogy. We’ll see. Maybe something will hit me like Huncke did.
What sort of future do you see for the long poem?
Well, it has had something of a renaissance with Walcott, Les Murray and David Mason. Mason’s Ludlow is beautiful. I can’t imagine an historical novel on the Ludlow strike that would affect me as deeply as his poem did. Omeros is one of the greatest books I have read, and Murray’s Fredy Neptune is a natural marvel. I have fervent hopes for the long poem. I think we’ll see more of them.
Hey, let’s hope so. Thank you very much. You kept the name-dropping down, which was one of my big concerns going into this.
I told you not to worry. And it was nice doing this for once without the sock puppets! Thanks for the opportunity. Keep in touch. And thank you, The Nervous Breakdown!
I had a dream last night. I was in St. Andrews but it wasn’t St. Andrews, and there were zombies hunting me. The whole world was overrun by zombies. I had a gun but when I fired it the bullets zipped off in odd directions like those balloon stalls at crooked amusement parks. All out at sea there were sharks and you could see the sharks from the shore – big beautiful silver shapes circling in clusters of three. I tried to climb out onto a boat via a heavy rope, and I almost got low enough to touch the sharks, but I couldn’t and didn’t, and when I got onto the boat there were more zombies.
Then I woke up.
I realised then that it was more or less the same dream I’ve had every night. Sharks. St. Andrews. Zombie-like bad guys. Guns that don’t fire.
Street poet, cadence carpenter Rich Ferguson (Where I Come From), who could somehow make enchiladas relevant in the post-post-modern jib jabs of verse, rhythm, and rhyme, is an American spoken word artist to behold. Street meets soul as if a lingering piece of San Fran gold mysteriously appearing from the gluts of the LA Basin, liquefied reverb, straw cap, cawing through air spaces in his gums, “The Earthquake is Here! Where’s the Kick Drum?”
Tapping into the arterial vein of Los Angeles street life, Ferguson’s poetry oozes raw emotion with a pink underbelly. Be it the “boom-boom beat of all these bombs dropping” after the loss of a dear friend or the recollection of one night’s cross-dressing exploits (“The panty hose was the hardest to get on. Every inch of the way, the elastic material constricted movement, bound blood, itched the skin”), Ferguson’s inimitable interplay of lyric and language, culture possessed and exorcised by words and wordsmiths, haunted shadows on sidewalks, beckons the listener/reader line by line to sway side to side like a healed Stevie Wonder to the beat of a song wholly his own in statu nascendi inter spem et metum.
Ferguson has studied poetry alongside the poetic voice of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg (Howl), shared a stage with the likes of the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith (Horses), and even recently appeared—as in Monday, July 12, 2010 recent—on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” accompanying musical guest Tracy Bonham (Masts of Manhatta). If you thought the cowbell went out of style with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, think again. Ferguson could play the spoons or a musical instrument made from the cardboard remains of a toilet paper tube, strung tight with rubber bands, and you would still be hypnotized by a soulful magician not to be confused with Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson.
Ferguson’s words are not silky smooth like white clouds in blue skies peppered with pretty birds singing love sonnets. The man is less Wordsworth and more Whitman. Whitman 2.0, 2010, Los Angeles, California. Rough to the touch like sandpaper grit that picks at the epidermal layer of your skin in little square, flaky bits.
Cue Clark Griswold. Drum roll please . . . .
JEFFREY PILLOW: First Rich, thanks for taking the time to dissolve this East Coast/West Coast beef between Biggie and Pac and talk with me. How would you describe the parallel of music, rhythm, and rhyme in your spoken word/poetry?
RICH FERGUSON: Before I began performing spoken word on a fairly regular basis I started out as a musician. Drums were my first instrument. I gradually moved on to singing lead, and later learned how to play the guitar so I could write songs. Over the years while playing music in various rock bands, I was always doing spoken word on the side. Sometimes within the band as well. During those years of training, rhythm and rhyme was obviously a big part of my diet. Once I began performing spoken word, and writing material for performance, I found that some of those skills crossed over quite naturally into the material. In regards to spoken word, however, I’ve been very fortunate to have people champion my work. One person that comes to mind is Bob Holman. He’s a fantastic NYC poet/educator. I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He’s really opened quite a few doors for me in regards to performing opportunities and meeting various writers over the years.
JP: I believe it was Duke [Haney] who said this once over at The Nervous Breakdown, though I may be misquoting him (or someone else if it wasn’t Duke), that music was the creative instigator, that it all started with music at a young age. Music does that, doesn’t it? Sends a pulse right through your veins. It only takes one song during the years of teenage angst to send you on a path where you never look back.
JP: Influences? Anything really: music, fiction writers, nonfiction, neighbors, oddballs, circus clowns, carnies, et cetera.
RF: Musical influences: I get a lot of crap for this one, but Rush is really one of my first musical influences. Or I should say that Neil Peart is the guy that got me interested in playing drums. Terry Bozzio is another drummer that’s been a big influence over the years. I actually had the extreme good fortune and honor to meet him last year and collaborate with him on a spoken word/music video piece entitled, “From Within to Without.” I think it’s on my YouTube page.
Fiction writers: I love Raymond Carver. Not so much because I feel like I write like him. Mainly because I don’t write like him. Let me explain . . . sometimes I feel like I use way too many words to get my point across. Carver is one of those writers that is able to go straight for the heart, straight for the jugular vein in the fewest words. His work is very lean and to the point. I admire that greatly.
JP: I hear ya’. I’ve tried to train myself to not be so longwinded yet I still fail miserably. I get it from my Mama. That woman can straight release some words from her gut, which is fairly amazing since she has a blib on one of her lungs. Collapsed way back when from blowing up a pool float.
Your thoughts on pool floats or other inflatable devices?
RF: So sorry to hear that your mom had such a hard time with that pool float. As for me, I can’t recall a problem with pool floats or inflatable devices. Now that I think of it, though, not long ago I went to see Brad Listi interview Chuck Palahniuk here in L.A. During the course of the interview, Chuck threw some inflatable toys into the audience. Some were huge Oscar-like statues. Others were giant-sized hearts. Everyone in the audience–and we’re talking a pretty big theater–were huffing and puffing trying to blow up these toys. Me, I damn near thought I was going to get a collapsed lung while blowing up that heart. But I made it. In fact, I currently have it sitting in my living room.
JP: Sorry, sorry. Influences, yes. Back to that.
RF: There are other writers that I love reading for inspiration: Neruda, Rilke, Rumi. I love the mystical and lyrical nature of their voices. I also enjoy the poetry of Patti Smith, Mayakovsky, and Saul Williams.
A couple other fiction writers I enjoy: Richard Brautigan, George Saunders, and Mark Richard. I just love their sense of imagination and word play.
In regards to other inspirations: Heck, inspiration is all around in everyday life. I’m trying to get better at picking up the clues.
JP: Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, I have to ask: Patti Smith . . . you once performed on the same stage with her. What was this experience like?
RF: Performing with Patti Smith was amazing. A dream come true, really. The amazing NYC poet, Bob Holman, was the mastermind that put that show together. The only thing that could’ve made the evening even better would’ve been having the opportunity to hang out with Patti and pick her brain a bit about her experiences and let her know how much she’s influenced not only my creative work, but my life. But she was pretty much keeping to herself that evening, so I didn’t bug her.
JP: And [Allen] Ginsberg? Jeez man, you studied with Ginsberg? I keep a copy of Howl and Other Poems at my cube at work. I jokingly said to my wife when I started writing for TNB that the crowd there is like The Beat Generation: 21st Century Edition starring [Brad] Listi as Jack Kerouac, and if anyone should play Ginsberg then it’s gotta be Rich.
RF: Frankly, I don’t think I should be the one playing Ginsberg. Actually, that should be another TNB contributor: Milo Martin. Some years ago when he was living in S.F. he was propositioned by Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore. Milo graciously refused the offer. Still, near blowjobs over writing workshops–I think that officially puts Milo at a lesser degree of separation from Allen than me.
JP: How are you different than Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson, the magician?
RF: This is a funny question. I never became aware of this guy until someone once wrote me and said: “So I googled your name and this magician guy came up. Some other guy named Rich Ferguson.” I did a little bit of investigating and saw that this guy has TONS of videos on YouTube and stuff. In fact, I think when you google the name Rich Ferguson, his name comes up before mine. At one point, when you googled the name, he came up, I came up, then there was this cross-dresser in London that also came up. Since then, I think the London cross-dresser has changed his name. I think he was really starting to feel the heat. Ultimately, it’s one of the my life ambitions to beat the magician Rich Ferguson in the Google pool. I actually spoke to him once on the phone, and we had a great conversation. He’s a super sweet guy.
JP: I feel ya’ Rich. It took me a while to climb Google’s ladder too. Back in the day, the first search results you’d get when you googled me were Jeffrey Dahmer pillows and Jeff Gordon pillows. But no more. The Jeffrey Dahmer pillows still trump me sometimes in the Google Images search. Unfortunately for some likely cannibals and future serial killers out there, they sadly come upon my website from time to time when searching for Jeffrey Dahmer collectibles. Google Analytics has clued me in.
I had to ask about The Ice Breaker. When I was doing research for my article, the magic man appeared. I think as me and Greg [Olear] discussed once, when you do a search of Brad and The Nervous Breakdown, you get links to a Brad Paisley song of the same name . . . .
I’m sure you’ve been asked this a dozen times already but how was the experience on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?’ You were groovin’ dude. In synch hand claps. The cow bell. You were straight jamming on stage.
RF: The Leno experience was great. The crew was great. The band that I played with [Tracy Bonham] was amazing. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a tremendous amount of waiting around. That’s the one thing I wasn’t prepared for. I got there at 9:30 a.m. There was a sound check at 11:00. Then there was a lunch break. At 1:30 we did a tech run-through with cameras. Then we had to sit around until 4:45 when we did the actually taping. Yeah, the most challenging part of the whole deal was to have to sit around for all that time, then when they said, “You’re on” you really had to be on. Because we basically just had one shot at the whole thing.
JP: Well, you guys damn sure nailed it . . . .
What’s a good web address where folks can listen to your work?
JP: One last thing, Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima? Who makes the best maple syrup? Inquiring minds want to know.
RF: I’ll go with Aunt Jemima. If for no other reason than I grew up with her. Gotta stay loyal to my homegirl. She gave me many fine, sweet mornings during childhood breakfasts.
JP: Thanks for your time Rich. Best of luck in your continuing beat in the literary world.
RICH FERGUSON has performed across the country and has been heard on many radio stations, including WBAI in New York City, KCRW and KPFK in Southern California, and World Radio. He has shared the same stage with Patti Smith and Janet Hamill, Exene Cervenka, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Holly Prado, and many other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the Redcat Theater in Disney Hall, the Electric Lodge (Venice, CA), The Knitting Factory (NYC & LA), the South by Southwest Music Festival, the North By Northwest Music Festival, the Henry Miller Library, Tongue and Groove, Beyond Baroque, and the Topanga Film Festival. On the college circuit he has performed at UC Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara, UCLA, El Camino College, and Cal State Northridge. He is a featured performer in the sequel to the film 1 Giant Leap. It’s called What About Me, and also features Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, K.D. Lang, Krishna Das, and others. Ferguson has studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and fiction writing with Aimee Bender and Sid Stebel. In addition, he has been published in the LA TIMES, spotlighted on PBS (Egg: The Art Show), is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, and his spoken word/music CD, entitled Where I Come From, was produced by Herb Graham Jr. (John Cale, Macy Gray).
When I first began my screenwriting career, I had high hopes for my female characters. As long as they didn’t do anything like grab their crotch or spit after singing the national anthem, I thought things would be fine.
Clearly, I was wrong.
In Hollywood, you learn fast that women characters, much like women in general, are expected to be above all “likable.” Sure, she is allowed to be a bit wacky, but only if she is also meek. She can have a high-powered job, but only if she still cries in the bathroom during lunch breaks. She may have interests or hobbies, but they should be related to meeting men. Alessandra Stanley put it best in an old New York Times review when she called it the ‘Ally Mcbealing’ of American women.
Though for me, it’s nothing new. In some of my early drafts of How To Lose A Guy the heroine Andie Anderson was caustic, witty and above all else, comfortable with her sexuality. She also realized that her job at a glossy woman’s magazine was somewhat shallow, but at least it paid the rent and that was good enough for her. By the time the studio got done with it, however, Andie was a serious reporter stuck in a vapid magazine job. She was the ‘How To’ girl who dreamed of writing pieces on war torn Bosnia. All sarcasm was erased, and for all intents and purposes she was a virgin (though she had a friend who was a little trampy). These changes ostensibly made her character more likable. Likable trumped real. The movie came out, grossed a fortune, and one could argue, Hollywood was right. But I always wonder how it would have played had we kept her “real.” Would it have tanked? Or played even better?
I ask the question because in reality – at least by Hollywood standards – just about every woman I know is unlikable. Still, this doesn’t stop the movies and TV from perpetuating the myth that women are generally ditzy, clumsy, girl-next-door types whose main goal in life is to find a man (The only exception to this rule being when they are crime solvers, in which case they are consummate loners unable to ever have a real relationship because they are haunted and dark.)
The reality is that women (both fictional and real) are constrained by this nebulous likability factor while male characters can do just about anything. Imagine if Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a black comedy that makes fun of a deaf woman – and a movie I quite liked – had been made in reverse. You don’t have to work in the film business to know that The Company of Women would never have even made it past a first draft – if that. Or what about Scent of A Woman, staring Judy Dench as the foul-mouthed, blind ex-army officer? How about Mamet’s 12 Angry Men remade as 12 Angry Women. Or maybe an adaptation of John Dollar – a brilliant novel that is basically Lord of the Flies with girls. The sad truth is, it’s not going to happen.
Of course, film and TV present a fantasy, an escape from everyday life. But do people really not want to see real women? Does the public not want to hear women speak in their true voices, which span the spectrum from prim to irreverent. Are we still living in some sort of backwards world where women can, in theory, be anything they want to be, as long as they adhere to a certain role model?
It’s sort of depressing if you consider it. That’s why, in addition to writing screenplays, I turned to writing books, believing it would be a creative outlet where I would be allowed to express my worldview without having to give myself over to the bland dictates of being likable. A few years ago, I penned a coming-of-age memoir set in New Jersey. Surely I would have free reign to render the quirky, true-to-life characters that peopled my childhood — my lecherous gym teacher, a vindictive jazz musician who once terrorized me, and even a sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee. And while many reviewers embraced my story, there were plenty who didn’t.
But not for the reasons I expected.
Getting critical reviews is never a pleasant experience. As a writer, you simply hope for the best, bracing yourself for the reviewer’s poisoned arrows. But while promoting my memoir, a trend began to emerge. I was compared, with an alarming frequency, to cult author Charles Bukowski, although, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison was positive. More disturbing, though, my work was taken to task for being both profane and vulgar.
Puzzled, I searched for reasons why I was getting this reaction. I thought perhaps it was because my brother cursed a lot, a fact I translated onto the page. But then I recalled David Sedaris’ brother a.k.a “The Rooster” who cursed constantly. And fine, I described how our front yard became a boggy mess after the septic tank exploded, but didn’t Augusten Burroughs discuss his bowel movements without repercussion? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any references to support how my memoir, which didn’t include sex, violence, or drugs would deserve such a description. I looked up early reviews of Trainspotting and saw terms like “calculatedly outrageous,” and “winningly sarcastic.” I checked out reviews of Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, and found several reviews applauding his female characters, in particular his creation of Honey Deal as a “smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female.” Now I consider myself a pretty smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female, yet somehow a 79-year-old man’s creation is more pitch perfect than the real deal?
Finally, while in New Jersey I did an interview for a local paper, and the reporter (male, early 30s) asked me why I was so mean.
I was taken aback by the word. Mean? The word ping-ponged through my brain. I can be dry, even sardonic on occasion. But mean? No. A straight shooter. Yes. I wondered if he was confusing the two.
Later, the reporter’s question started to burn. Why is it when a man describes the world around him in a way that’s scrupulously honest, he is described as brave, groundbreaking even? Yet when a woman writes about her world in a similar way, she is … mean.
The only answer I could come up with was that, as a woman writer, I was expected to be likable.
You see, I didn’t write about any of those safe female topics in my book. I never yearned to be prom queen, or battled with my weight, or suffered an unrequited crush on the quarterback. Instead, I wrote about being abandoned by my father, living in a crumbling house with an assortment of ill and handicapped siblings. I wrote about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around me. I wrote about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. This was my truth and it was through this prism that I saw the world around me. I was an emotional nomad who navigated the landscape of divorce in the 70s. A scrappy survivor of the mean streets of suburbia, who didn’t indulge in self-denigration or self-destruction.
So maybe I do have more in common with Bukowski than Bridget Jones. Driven by a need to find higher meaning in the world around me I took to questioning the world as I saw it. After all, alienation, sarcasm, and cynicism are not the sole domain of men, although sometimes it might seem as if they are. Back in the 50s and 60s, a group of disaffected male writers named themselves the Beat generation, playing with the paradox of the word to mean both “tired” and “upbeat” at the same time; although women were involved in the movement as well, they were often relegated to the sidelines, cast in the role of hostess, girlfriend, muse. The writing style of the beats was chaotic, gritty, and non-conformist, reflecting the burgeoning counterculture movement of the time.
Even though it’s been almost 50 years since the Beat generation, women are slowly breaking into the territory first staked out by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And despite the pressure to conform, to be likable, to break down and pine away and play helpless, we are resisting, enlarging the boundaries of our worldview with our gimlet eyes and bringing in the experiences of our own upbringing: the anomie of suburban life, the possibilities of the internet, the prevalence of divorce, the increasing fungibility of identity.
A growing number of female writers and performers don’t want to toe the line and be likable anymore. As I considered my role in this regard, I remembered a line Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones … they never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” And that’s when it hit me. Every generation has its movements, and perhaps this is ours. We are Mads. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. We are nomads displaced by cultural circumstances who are now trying to find a place to call home. We are mad to experience life on all levels. Mad to connect all our million little pieces. Mad to find our own truth. We write mad lit — and yes, it’s cynical, unflinching, and irreverent. Our stories are populated by female characters who don’t want to be Meredith Grey or Carrie Bradshaw, created by female authors who don’t want pink covers and cute little cartoons on their books.
To the reporter who asked me why I was so mean, I now have an answer: I’m not mean. I’m mad. And if that makes me unlikable, so be it. Because let’s face it, being mad is a hell of a lot more interesting.
I used to work on an organic farm in California, living in a barn full of horses and riding tractors through fields under the warmth of a gentle fall sun. I was a Beatnik then more than now – among hippies and flower children, believing everything I was told and digging all the world in some glorious young innocence.
I was obsessed with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and with the notion of wilderness. I read too much for my own good; my head full of dreams and naïve thoughts. I’d read Into the Wild, a lot of London and some Thoreau. I was obsessed with Big Sur and becoming free of the constraints of humanity. I loved the idea of the writer disappearing into nature.
When I came upon a bicycle one day I realized that I had the chance to disappear for a while. I told my boss at the farm that I was going to wander into the wild and he laughed and said “ok” and gave me fifty bucks to prevent me from starving.
In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.
He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.