(This post was originally written for the Citizen Journal, Broowaha.com. While the style of my writing has changed over the years, the content of my message has not. First published in 2007, here is “With This Muse You Lose)
Writers are freaks.
Capable of reaching deep into the creative void, searching for light, and, as if from nowhere they, seemingly, can pull entire worlds out whole. And sometimes in their search they, along with the worlds they’ve drawn from the darkness, bring back the very darkness itself.
And sometimes, writers are bullies.
A few days ago, I got an email from another writer inside the Los Angeles Edition. In the note were concerns about criticisms expressed in the comments section at the end of our articles for BrooWaha. One thought in particular stood out,
“I appreciate the fact that people can give feedback and constructive criticism, but I don’t think it should be condescending and pointlessly mean.” (emphasis mine).
After a few words from me (which I’m sure didn’t help), I got to thinking about these two sides of the writer, and about the fragile nature of each. Because even the schoolyard bully is just one good ass-beating away from having to embrace his own inner freak. What is it about staring deep into that empty, dark place where ideas take shape and then draw breath, which brings out the best, and worst, in the writer? I thought a little more, and my thoughts turned, well… dark.
In the film Wonder Boys, James, the budding, brilliant writer (played by Tobey Maguire), recites a list of celebrity suicides he’s memorized, in alphabetical order no less. At a very young age, James is a freak who gets it. He already sees what comes with the literary territory. It’s morbid. Funny morbid. But when the lights come up again in the theater, James is just a character in a movie. He isn’t real. Movies aren’t real.
Real is what happens between kids (the freaks and the bullies) on any playground, any day, between lunch and the 5th period bell. Real is what happens in the comments section at the end of the articles in BrooWaha, where the writer plays critic, and the rules of the playground still apply.
Writers search for light in the darkness of their own soul. And when that light can’t be found, other writers write about it.
Literary history is the story of writers – freaks – so damaged from staring into the black hole of their own inspiration, that they can no longer cope with what’s real.
The world loves a winner, and everyone loves a story about a thick-skinned writer. But in a world that’s real, thick skin is just a cover for the freak that lives inside. And only in a business where the workers must daily look into the void of darkness in their own souls, is insanity accepted as an occupational hazard.
“Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.” – Thomas Chatterton.
Thomas Chatterton was real.
Born in England in 1752, Thomas Chatterton was a freak. Withdrawn as a young child, some thought he might even be mentally handicapped. Before the age of six, Thomas lived as a recluse in the home of his parents, sitting alone for hours and, at times, crying without a reason. When not staring into space or crying, he would tell family members of his desire to be famous.
By age eight, if given the chance, he would read and write all day. By age eleven, he was a published author.
However, during the next six years, Chatterton, while writing for various journals in England, also perpetrated an elaborate and ill-conceived series of “forgeries”. He claimed the documents were original poems by the 15th century writer Thomas Rowley. They were original poems, alright. Originally written by Chatterton on two-hundred-year-old parchment scraps he had taken from a chest inside his local parish church.
After the fall-out over the Rowley poems, Chatterton began writing political satire under various pen names, selling little and sinking deeper into depression. Finally, in 1770, at the age of seventeen, Thomas Chatterton wrote a rambling “Last Will and Testament” and moved on to the big city – London.
Two months later, unemployed, hungry and disgraced, Chatterton tore up any writings he had in his possession, drank arsenic, and died.
“Dance no more at holiday, like a running river be; My love is dead, gone to his death bed, all under the willow tree.” – TC.
“I must now prove that I even exist.” – Jerzy Kosinski.
Jerzy Kosinski was real.
An acclaimed author, Kosinski, was the survivor of a childhood spent hiding his Jewish identity from the Nazis who occupied his native Poland during World War II. As an adult, this period of his life was recounted in the 1965 novel The Painted Bird. Though Kosinski never claimed the book was a “biography” as such, he did say that the story was both a representation of his life at the time, as well as a retelling of a Polish folk tale about the dangers of non-conformity. Later in his career, Kosinski also wrote the 1972 novel Being There, and co-authored the screenplay for the 1979 film version starring Peter Sellers.
However, as early as 1969, with the publishing of the book Steps, whispers within the writing community began to be heard about possible plagiarism in the stories of Kosinski. Over the next dozen years, countless accusations, newspaper articles and broadcast stories pointed to the same thing.
Finally, in early May, 1991, ostracized by the literary world that had made him famous, Jerzy Kosinski, 58, committed suicide in his New York apartment.
“I need an internal light, as not to fall prey to the things which cause my spirits to sag. This is true water from the heavens.” – JK.
“That’s nice talk, Ben – keep drinking. Between the 101-proof breath and the occasional bits of drool, some interesting words come out.” – Sera to Ben in Leaving Las Vegas, from the novel by John O’Brien.
John O’Brien was real.
A Midwestern kid from a stable, two-parent home, John O’Brien was married just a year after graduating high school. Three years later John, and his wife Lisa, moved to Los Angeles. During the next few years, John wrote and worked various jobs around L.A.
According to his sister Erin, John became a heavy drinker in his mid-twenties when, she said,
“John’s drinking problem started as soon as he started drinking. By the time he was 20, he was taking a clandestine flask to work. By the time he was 26, he was chugging vodka directly from the bottle at morning’s first light in order to stave off the shakes. I know. I saw him do it.”
By 1990, O’Brien’s first novel, Leaving Las Vegas, was published. The next four years saw O’Brien complete just one more work, Stripper Lessons, and begin one other, The Assault on Tony’s.
In 1994, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the true origin of the Sheryl Crow song Leaving Las Vegas (a song Crow co-wrote with O’Brien’s friend, David Baerwald), O’Brien sank to the deepest depths of alcoholic depression.
On March 21, 1994 Crow appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, performing the song and answering questions about its origin. During the course of the interview, Crow took biographical credit for the lyrics.
A week after the Crow appearance, production began on the movie version of LLV, starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Two weeks later, on April 10th, O’Brien was still upset about the Crow interview, complaining to his literary agent in a phone conversation.
Later that day, John O’Brien put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. Later, his father said that the novel, Leaving Las Vegas, was John’s suicide note.
The final paragraph of John O’Brien’s unfinished manuscript of The Assault on Tony’s summed up his life.
“For the first time in his life Rudd found himself wishing for death, hoping (praying?) that the walls came down before the liquor ran out, that they were stormed, bombed or shot in some truculent surprise attack, some irresistible force, divine intervention.” – J.O.
Writers are freaks.
And if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer.
Copyright © 2007-2010-2014, 2015 Bill Friday