James Franco, are you a Real Writer? Part One.
Dear James Franco:
On behalf of everyone who is skeptical about your writing career—though understandably weary to voice their opinions publically, given the possible ramifications—I’d like to resolve the debate. Unfortunately, a quick and easy answer is impossible. For your benefit, I’ve broken the matter down into three chapters. I’ll post them consecutively over the next week or two. But let it be known: I don’t think anyone has the right to determine whether you’re a “real” writer or not.
Chapter One: To thine own self be… eh, fuck that. Polonius was full of shit. What the hell did he know?
But before I go ahead and assess your art in accordance to a reductive, ontologically monovalent definition of what characteristics signify a real writer as opposed to a hack; before I address what some have construed to be your violation of our literary subculture’s ethical code; before I perform a 2nd-year Graduate Assistant-style analysis of your work, I should contextualize the argument by posting a watered-down version of your C.V. (this does not include your acting career). Let’s make sure I’ve got this right.
You received an undergraduate degree in English from UCLA in 2008. One source claim you took 64 credits one semester. You were in a rush.
Then, all at once, you attended Columbia University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, NYU’s Tisch School for film, Brooklyn College for Creative Writing, and a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College. You’re currently working on your PhD. in English at Yale, meanwhile attending the Rhode Island School of Design to study—what?—digital media? In 2012, you will be attending the prestigious Creative Writing doctoral program at the University of Houston. Some Franco-snoopers purport that this might not happen, due to residency requirements.
I’ve had a hell of a time trying to piece together your bibliography, but from what I’ve gathered, you’ve published in McSweeny’s, Esquire, Ploughshares, the Wall Street Journal; have written reviews for the Paris Review blog; have had a collection of short stories, Palo Alto, published by Simon and Schuster, and your first novel will be published by Amazon.
Pretty impressive, James. I’d say that you’ve done a writer’s work, but that still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not you’re a real writer. Had I the patience, I’d mine all available James Franco interviews for anything that would help me understand what compels you to write. But since you and I are in the business of taking shortcuts and telling lies, I’m going to do what my gut tells me to do, and make some generalized assumptions.
You and I share a life-consuming passion for reading and writing, and therefore, we can say with reasonable certainty that we’re similar, at least on one principal level. In light of our identical fervor for the written world, I might find an answer to the Franco riddle by looking inward. If I can prove that I’m a real writer, then I can prove that you’re one too, by virtue of our likeness.
Here’s the problem: I’m not a real writer.
I’m a shameful man, James. I do real writing, and I surely read a lot, but what I do and what I am are not always compatible. For instance, a New Age guru named Lynn once told me that my virtues aren’t aligned. Another guru, Lynn’s Buddhist husband, told me that my crown chakra is displaced. It’s hovering a foot away from my head, somewhere on my left. Also, it’s leaking. He said that I’m ejecting a fountain of “psychic snot” everywhere (is this not similar to writing a memoir?).
Not only is my spiritual body detached from my corporal body, but some of my physiological components, though locked inside me, insist on being located elsewhere. Consider my spine. Over time, it’s been bending itself into the shape of a question mark, and my body refuses to accommodate its insidious contour. As a result, I feel pain, and an overwhelming sense that my spine is trying to free itself from my body. It wants to be someone else’s question mark, someone better suited.
The problem is I was designed to be a semicolon. When we think of semicolons, we think of improper use and bad habits, all of which I exemplify. We semicolons have a bad reputation. Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite writer, said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
A semicolon is used to join two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. While the semicolon implies a causal connection between two seemingly disparate independent clauses, it doesn’t actually provide an explicit or logical reason for the connection. It’s more like a doorway. This kind of door is meant—exclusively—for being situated between two incongruent rooms. Example: one side of the door opens up to a factory floor where workers build wrist watches, and the other side opens to a lecture hall where there’s a public symposium on affordable diabetes treatments. The door marks the divide, but doesn’t explain the logic.
People who have been diagnosed with ADD are semicolons.
I have ADD. A computerized test my doctor administered concluded that I’m “severely impaired.”
According to the Internet, you’re working on a film adaptation of The Adderall Diaries. I’m an experiential expert on ADD and its medical treatment. I keep my consultation fees low too. Just saying.
Back to writing: My earliest memory of wanting to be a writer was in first grade, but I waited 32 years before devoting myself to the art. Up until then, I wrote in therapeutic spurts. All of my psychic snot, which otherwise would’ve been ejected into the atmosphere, materialized on paper. One year, when I was manically depressed, I churned out about twenty short stories and several first-drafts of novel manuscripts. Mind you, none of this happened in an academic environment. The only writers I knew were my soon-to-be wife, and a then-amateur playwright who lived Minnesota. I sent the stories to literary magazines, and amassed over a hundred rejections. Then I thought, “Fuck this.” I gave up. As far as I was concerned, my lot in life was to be a social worker. At that time, I was treatment specialist for a group of men with profound developmental disabilities. I did that for almost nine years.
Eventually, I got back into writing, but my return was largely conditional. Here’s what I’ve discovered: I write, and do the work that writers are supposed to do, when I’m part of a literary community. If I’m not in regular contact with people who are passionate for the written word, who derive pleasure from discussing books, who are thrilled to work with each other, I feel no incentive to carry on.
Thinking back to the time when I said, “Fuck this” and altogether stopped, my social circles consisted of musicians who were disinterested in literature, and health care professionals who didn’t have time to read. I carried out my literary endeavors in isolation; I had no mentors, and no money to pay potential mentors (I wiped drool and changed grown men’s dripping diapers for $9.00 an hour. If you can imagine it, that kind of salary isn’t conducive toward enrolling in an MFA program, or, in your case, several simultaneously). While some might romanticize the creative advantage of being unplugged from (and untainted by) our literary culture’s rules and codes, I’m just not brilliant enough to write a good story without some help. I’ll even make a snobby remark, based on observation: 95% of writers who trash-talk “the system” and consider themselves and their art above it are delusional about the quality of their own writing. The other 5% are geniuses.
In any case, writers are supposed to write for joy in isolation. That’s not my conjecture. Grab any How-to-Write book off the shelf at Barnes and Nobel, preferably the books nearest the one-inch barrier that separates the “Writing Guides” section from the “Self Help” section, and no doubt, the book will tell you that, by God, you better be floating with gratitude and bliss while you’ve been locked in a room writing for the last thirty hours—not eating, not sleeping, ignoring your loved ones, chain smoking, drinking fish-tanks full of coffee, and ripping your hair out—or else, damn it, maybe this isn’t for you.
We believe our own press. We justify our “I am happy about being completely alone and fucking insane” delusion by quoting Wordsworth out of context. We convince ourselves that we’re not experiencing devastating loneliness, but a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. We call to mind images of Ginsberg sitting at his typewriter, so enmeshed in the solitary world of the spirit that the ghost of Blake, drawn to the mystical power of Ginsberg’s passion, materializes before him. We imagine Thoreau at dusk, entranced, meditating on the breeze that tickles Walden Pond’s surface and makes it quiver. He’s so enraptured, so uninhibited by life’s distractions, that a book’s worth of brilliant insights pass through his brain like cheap beer in a frat boy’s full bladder.
Words, words, words! If you approach yourself lovingly and recognize that you’re a divine conduit for the creative spirit that dwells in everyone, a traveler on the journey toward truth, that you’ve been called to translate the language of the soul—for everyone!— then the words will just flow! They’ll fall right into your lap! All you need to do is trust the process, treat yourself non-judgmentally, step out of the way, and let the magic happen.
I don’t write so that I can experience, in dreadful isolation, the magical beauty of words. More often than not, I’m a failed magician; I choose the worst words, and it takes somebody else—a mentor, a peer, an editor, a rhetorical David Copperfield—to find better ones. Nor do I write in order to acquire the propagandistic, misconstrued Wordsworthian sense of transcendence. If that was the point, I’d just skip all this writing shit and chew up a handful of Percodan.
I read and write because it provides me access to a culture of like-mined individuals with like-minded ideals, beliefs, passions, and goals. I read and write because it gives me family. I read and write because I’m just about incapable of being intimate with another person unless I use literature as the connective medium (Interestingly, object-centered sexual fetishes serve the same purpose: they’re mediary agents upon which the subject re-routs his/her attention in order to access “normal” sexual behavior). Fetishes aside, let me give you an example of how I use literature as a bridge to other people’s hearts. Nothing provides me greater joy than those times when my wife and I talk about books. Sometimes we disagree—we might not see eye to eye on Colson Whitehead, or I might be a snob about certain genre fiction writers—but the best and most intimate conversations are the ones in which neither of us know exactly what the fuck we’re talking about. We’re uncertain of our individual thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We experiment with viewpoints. Sometimes, I play the old, conservative New Critic, and she beats me into a bloody pulp with Gender Theory. Sometimes, I say things like, “He’s the whitest poet you’ve ever read to me,” and that gets us going. I don’t necessarily believe what I’m saying; rather, I’m trying on costumes. She does it too. We yap and yap until we’ve arrived at a better understanding of our world, our individual selves, and each other. Now that’s hot.
Sometimes, I’m in no mood to talk about books. Sometimes, especially when I discover a new writer that I admire, she listens to me go on and on. Last year, it was Laura van den Berg and Rick Moody. This year, it’s Lauren Groff.
On a larger scale, books enable me to engage in conversation with other readers and writers. I am, by all accounts, a social reader. And hopefully, what I write not only contributes to the subculture’s aesthetic spirit, but can be used as way for otherwise lonely people to connect and converse. I’d be thrilled to find out that a girlfriend and boyfriend, having read my story in Eleven Eleven,got into an almost-argument about my treatment of gender issues, came to see each other’s points of view, decided to make an effort to be more sensitive to this or that issue as it pertains to gender discrimination in their lives. Better yet, I want to know that my story led to an argument, then an apology, and then the most animalistic sex this couple has ever had.
There you have it. My reading and writing practices are contingent upon community and building relationships. Remove the community, and chances are I’ll stop writing, eventually. Very few people would notice. I’d probably feel horrible and pointless for the rest of my life, but I’ve been there before.
In my next post, we’re going to shift our attention to you. And Ploughshares.