The most interesting person I’ve ever met happens to be a writer, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that was just an instance of happenstance. For the most part, the writing industry is equal parts dullards and Dos Equis men just as the accounting industry, or animal husbandry industry, or the bible repair industry. Unfortunately, the writing world has never been lacking in ego or narcissism, and as a result the general public is subjected to many a film, TV show, play, novel, novella, short story, sestina, villanelle, and haiku by writers about writers for writers. Writers are given a forum with which to share their narcissism. Admittedly, I’m on occasion guilty of this myself, but I’m relatively unsuccessful and those who have been subjugated to my work heavily rooted in the self have more often not complained, but rather bought me a drink or seven, and patted me assuredly on the back. “There, there,” they say, “there, there.”
The problem starts early on in the writer’s evolution. The institutionalization of writing has meant that writers now learn to write in MFA programs, as opposed to the old route where aspiring writers would simply read books, get drunk, find a pen, and see what happens. There are certain tropes of the creative writing pedagogy. One, of course, is using the term pedagogy as often as possible. Another is to tell students to “show don’t tell”, which is indeed great advice for writing, yet bad advice for flirting. Recently, the term “learnable moment” has become very popular, but I still have no idea as to how that’ll help me write a good paradelle. But the most dangerous and misleading teaching is the notion of “writing what you know”. This, is where we’ve gone wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong.
“Writing what you know” has led to creative writing workshops filled with pieces about bad university dorm experiences, the problems with parents and mean boyfriends, and the increasingly popular “things that happened to me yesterday while on Ritalin”. I had one professor who thankfully went the other way on this, suggesting “if it happened to you, don’t write it. It’ll never be as interesting for anyone else.” He would also take aspiring writers writing what they knew to task, telling many that their pieces should be titled “My Name is (insert name) and This Once Happened to Me”. Of course, he also advised that I own more knives, took Viagra recreationally and not for sexual purposes, and then asked to borrow my girlfriend, so…
Of late, this unfortunate trend has become most prominent on television. Books are easy enough to avoid (and in 2012, many do), but TV is everywhere, so it really is an issue. Jonathan Ames, a Brooklyn-based writer and recovering alcoholic created the HBO series Bored to Death about a Brooklyn-based writer and recovering alcoholic. This, of course, was a follow-up to his graphic novel about a Brooklyn-based writer and recovering alcoholic called The Alcoholic. Ames doesn’t even bother to change the characters names, believing I suppose that his life as a Brooklyn-based writer and recovering alcoholic is so interesting, it’s important that he share his pedestrian experiences with the world in multiple mediums.
HBO recently renewed its new series Girls for a second season, a show that is perhaps the most offending of the genre. Girls is created, written by, and starring Lena Dunham, and follows the trials and tribulations of, wait for it, an aspiring writer living in Brooklyn. Dunham herself plays the series’ protagonist Hannah (at least Dunham, unlike Ames, is able to think of a name for her “character”) who suffers from a wealthy upbringing, too many friends, and a dreaded unpaid internship that could lead to a well-paying job in the future. It presents writers as spoiled white kids living off their parents and moving seamlessly from social experience to social experience, then exploiting that experience as art. Which might be enjoyable, if it wasn’t so violently narcissistic and unaware of how pretentious it is. Girls is heavy handed and littered with sex, social media references, and a soundtrack seemingly curated by Pitchfork to make sure its viewers know that not only is it a cool show, but it’s a cool show about cool kids with cool lives doing cool jobs being cool in a cool borough. Cool.
This all led me to pitch my own series to CBC just this morning. It’s about a struggling Toronto-based writer named Michael Spry who was born in Ottawa and lived in Montreal who lives in his sister’s basement and writes poetry and fiction and op-eds, and has an odd affection for llamas and is trying to quit smoking and his favourite band is The Silver Jews. I wrote the pilot last night. In it, the protagonist Michael has a severe hangover and spends the day eating potato chips, watching baseball, and writing a TV pilot. At the end of the episode he cuts his own hair, then has a Neo Citran, then falls asleep. I expect it to be on the air in the fall, though to write the second episode I may need to leave the house for 22 minutes and find out what happens to me today.
I suppose what’s most frustrating about entities like Girls and Bored to Death is their romanticizing of writing, the argument that it’s this virtuous and righteous endeavour performed by the blessed. It’s actually mostly grant writing, binge drinking, applying for teaching gigs, and Facebook status updates. That’s punch line. It’s actually more about doing your taxes, making dinner, picking the kids up from daycare, and worrying about the future. To write about writing in any other way, to present it as the most interesting vocation in all of Williamsburg, is presumptuous, the notion that the author has that what has happened to them is so incredible, it must be shared with very little reconstruction other than every character being slightly prettier, and ten percent hipper. But more than anything else, it strikes me as lazy.
There are countless examples of writers writing about writers writing, too many to list and too many to google. Not all are bad. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is excellent, as was the screen adaption. Adaptation from Charlie Kaufman is near flawless, but serves more as a parody of the trope. Charles Bukowski had respect for the reader, and created the alter-ego of the fictional Henry Chinaski. The lesson here is that parody and a healthy respect for the audience supersedes ego, but it doesn’t happen often enough. That’s not the writer’s way.
The notion that a writer’s life is any more interesting than anyone else’s is asinine, but accountants who may believe that they are the most interesting folks in the world can’t flaunt it with ego-driven tax forms or narcissistic year-end budgets. Of course, I do see the irony in presenting this argument on a blog. A blog bearing my name. A blog that, for the most part, is first person narrative creative non-fiction and op-eds. But I was told not to be afraid to revel in hypocrisy, and that’s about the only lesson I took away from my years of creative writing workshops. Also, as a writer, I can’t afford HBO, so I’m spared the ego-drenched nonsense that is Girls. Plus, if I really want poetic insight into a writers life I’ll just simply get out of bed. But I’ll keep what happens to myself.