Sunday, January 30, 2011
THE PROBLEM WITH MEMOIRS
"The problem with memoirs is, I got assigned to read 4 of them for this New York Times piece. God, I'm sick of people with dying mothers now. Look, if you're not a world leader with a really good ghostwriter or a kid who huffed spray paint then tried to kill the president or a girl who fell in love with her rapist uncle then joined the circus, I don't want to hear about it. If you had a childhood that was roughly as shitty as mine, for christsakes, don't write about it. Memoirs are declasse. Write a play instead, like I did. I'm a playwright. Doesn't that sound so much better than 'memoirist'? Do what I do. And get off my goddamn lawn!"
If you think my book might be unrewarding, read the excerpt and see for yourself.
P.S. I'm a critic (professional asshole) myself. If anyone deserves an arbitrary beatdown, it's me. No hard feelings toward the reviewer, just in a jaunty mood.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
STAND AND DELIVER!
Reading my book out loud has been much more fun than I thought. Rambling incoherently about yourself into a microphone can be pretty gratifying, as it turns out. Even though I'm drawn to the life of the shut-in, I'm not exactly shy. I was the sort of kid who was struck dumb by my first glimpse of Shirley Temple. I immediately vowed to get big, bouncy curls and sing to adoring strangers the next time I boarded an airplane.
As an adult, there aren't that many appropriate ways to let your inner show-off sing in the aisles - although that is one benefit of having little kids. They inspire you to tap dance and sing stupid songs and act like an asshole, at least in the very brief period before the eye-rolling and moaning and yelps of "Mom, stop being such a dork!" begin. Once your kids are old enough to recognize that you're a loser, I guess you have to go back to tossing back margaritas and boring the living hell out of your poor friends.
For now, though, I get to read the funny parts of my book to a big group made up mostly of family and friends, and all I have to do is write each one of them a small check in return! (Please send me your W-4s if you haven't already, guys.) The really great thing is that, once your large fraudience has gathered and is seated, then random humans wander in off the street, naturally attracted to any event where an unworthy nobody is about to stand up and speak (as if he or she knows anything!). This presents a nice opportunity to stand and, in the guise of a "question," introduce their own somewhat esoteric views in order to heighten the sophistication of this public discourse.
So far, each reading has featured 50% relatives, friends and acquaintances (mostly paid, with income tax withheld), 25% Salon readers, 10% Suck fans, 2% undiagnosed humans seeking counsel, 2% eccentrics seeking a pulpit and 1% nice people hoping to learn more about how to prepare for an impending disaster.
At the very end of my reading at The Regulator in Durham, a woman who'd asked a very appropriate question earlier raised her hand and said, "You know, I have to confess, I thought this was going to be very different. I saw this in the paper and I thought you had written a book about getting ready for natural calamities."
"You mean where to get gas masks and bunsen burners and stuff like that?" I said.
"Yes!" she said. "But you know, with so much laugher, and so many great people here? Maybe that's all you need!" Everyone applauded.
"No, you're also going to need a gas mask," I added.
NEXT READING: Sat. 1/29 at 2 p.m. at the West Hollywood Library. Mark your calendars! I will sing.
Friday, January 07, 2011
THE HEALING POWER OF MEMOIR
So many times in life we feel hesitant to complain bitterly, for fear of alienating old friends and potential lovers alike. We hide our most imaginative lamentations and our most obstinate grumbling under a bushel, so that coworkers and casual acquaintances may never discover the spiteful bastard or the irritable, demanding wench that lurks beneath that amiable, pliant exterior.
Likewise, we're often reluctant to pen scathing tomes about our wildly dysfunctional families of origin. Outlining the exact range and variety of objects that our parents hurled at each other's heads when infuriated tends to make most of us ever so slightly uncomfortable, as does detailing our parents' infidelities, bad habits, shortcomings and psychologically scarring missteps.
Even when we persevere and manage to describe, in careful prose, each and every offense and crime perpetuated by the two human beings who brought us into this world, even after we manage to publish said prose in a bound manuscript, even once said manuscript is available for sale at finer bookshops and bookstores across this great nation, we still might not know whether or not our parents will manage to be good sports about the whole thing, seeing as how our personal publishing coup likely amounts to the single worst thing that has ever happened to them.
Imagine my surprise when my mother not only said she enjoyed the first scathing essay in my new memoir, but she also offered to read and edit further essays which delved into the tragic folds of life among temperamental young parents. Yes, it's true, there are advantages to having been raised by a masochist. But that's not all! Instead of offering edits like "Don't make me look like such an asshole," or "You sound pretty stupid here," my mother offered up specific facts, dates, and the occasional suggestion regarding my overuse of run-on sentences.
My mother loves good books. And she just hates bad books. "Ugh, what a waste of time!" she'll say after putting down her latest book group assignment. Or "Christ, how tedious! I could barely keep my eyes open." And yes, she knows the difference. As far as I can tell, she's averaged about a book or two a week for the past 50 years. But she'll never let you know that she's more well-read than you or your snotty Comp Lit friend. What would be the point? The only concern: if I'm going to write about HER life (from my admittedly limited perspective), well then, it had better be a goddamn good book. Otherwise, why bother?
Surprisingly, in discussing this or that passage of my book, my mother and I have developed a renewed tolerance for each other's quirks and flaws. She has seen, in print, my mixed feelings about my childhood. And I've expressed my frustration about it -- this time without weeping into my hands or gurgling accusingly through snotty tissues.
True, my mother and I have always talked about everything -- good, bad, ugly, heavy, you name it. But now, instead of wandering into territory where my voice takes on a flinty edge and she gets defensive or remote, instead of pushing her to admit to this or that mistake, instead of stuttering, "You know, that's your problem, you never… you never… UNDERSTAND ANYTHING!" like some hormonal teenager, now I'm at peace. I'm not burning with the need to dig up old stories of pain and anguish. I've put it to rest. Sort of. Maybe. Almost. I think.
I'm sure she has complaints of her own, but at least she can see that my issues aren't quite as earth-shattering as all of that sobbing might've suggested. I was something of a hothouse flower as a child, without a doubt. I still don't like to stand for too long, or wear scratchy pants. I'm still highly suggestible and easily distracted and not very organized or even all that coherent.
Maybe, ultimately, I don't really understand her and she doesn't understand me. That feels beside the point now. We simply look at each other and we say: You're you, I'm me, we're us. None of it feels nearly as unsettling or as volatile as it once did. As some of the more reductive souls among us like to say, It is what it is.
So, kids: If you want to improve relations with your Mommy or Daddy? Consider writing a scathing account of your childhood, then publishing it for all the world to skim impatiently! Sure, your mom will still be fielding nosey questions about her troubled marriage for decades to come. But she's retired! What else does she have to do, really?
All that matters is that you can both look back on your rocky past together, and you can say, "Well, you were careless, I was oversensitive. You were hotheaded, I was self-pitying and overdramatic. You were selfish, I was even more selfish. We were young and dumb, then. Now, we're old and smart. Old old old and smart smart smart, me and you, you and me."