Unreliable narrators and autobiographical fiction

This Lena Dunham book has been huge in the memetic ten-second news cycle lately.  I haven’t read it, but the gist of the argument is that her autobiographical(-ish) book has some stuff in it about how she used to share a bed with her sister and various things may have happened (or not, whatever.) There’s a group of people who want to see her hung from a lamppost, and another who are defending her and saying that it’s normal behavior and/or they’re just jealous of her success and/or they don’t get how this could be fiction or an unreliable narrator situation.

I won’t get into my opinion on Dunham, because who cares.  But this demonstrates what I find an interesting flaw in the creative nonfiction genre.  Some people will take everything you say as face value, and even if you write an extremely exact, factual, researched and cited account of a situation, you will still have people tear it apart and give you shit about it. That gives you no latitude to be creative. If I were writing autobiographical fiction and I glossed over some event or fact or tried to frame things so I didn’t look like an asshole or looked worse off than I really was or whatever else, eventually someone is going to come forward and nitpick your work.

Was Lena Dunham adding in this stuff because her work is creative nonfiction and she’s free to be an unreliable narrator for the sake of art?  Maybe, I don’t know. But if she’s going to do that, she’s going to get people who don’t get it and freak the fuck out.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t like writing creative nonfiction anymore.  Any time I write a story about college or childhood and then fictionalize it by changing places and backgrounds and morphing together characters and altering sequences for the sake of storytelling, I always get some genius from the past who shows up and says “HEY MY CAR IN 1988 DIDN’T HAVE FOUR SPEAKERS IT ONLY HAD TWO.”

It’s just like how there’s always some asshole who’s got to reply to my one-line jokes on Facebook by closely analyzing it like I’m writing a peer-reviewed paper on nuclear physics.  It’s a goddamn joke.  Yes, I know that a duck can’t walk into a bar because all doors on commercial spaces open outward and the duck would need fingers to pull open the door.  That’s not the point – go do something more constructive, like telling kids there isn’t a Santa Claus.

What’s odd is that James Frey seemed to have the opposite trouble as Dunham about ten years ago.  He wrote a creative nonfiction book, which was pitched and sold as a straight biography, and then got torn apart because his crazy tales weren’t true.  I think at the time the Frey stuff happened, I thought he was a fraud and the whole thing was phony, but now in retrospect, I like the idea. I think if I did write a “nonfiction” book, I’d purposely make it outlandishly fake, and talk about my time in Japan studying to be a ninja, or how I do heart surgery on the side.

It’s almost bordering on Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo journalism.  And in the same sense, there’s been this whole cottage industry of picking apart HST’s life to prove what is and isn’t true.  (Same with Bukowski, same with Burroughs, and with a million others.)  But that’s the genius and the art of it: it’s all fake. Nothing is true; everything is permitted.  Good luck to Dunham explaining this to her humorless detractors, but it’s something to keep in mind when writing.


persona, content

I’ve been thinking more about content, which I babbled on about yesterday. There are a few conflicts involved in all of this, so bear with me.

Yesterday, I talked about content and method versus character and setting and plot. It might be helpful if you read yesterday’s entry, but for now, I’m going to ignore everything but content. A typical, writing 101 short story or Hollywood screenplay contains content – a protagonist, an antagonist, a dark and stormy night, a football player and the cheerleadr who loves him, and so on. The distinction that I would make between a typical story and something experimental or literary is that the purpose of the content is different, so the content is different. For example, the purpose of Dr. Benway in a William S. Burroughs book is different than the purpose of Dr. Niles Crane on the TV show Frazier. The former can develop in different ways because he’s not supporting this typical entourage of characters in the typical plot A/plot B sitcom script. More focus can be put on the characters (or the settings or objects) because they aren’t simple plug-ins to a prefab storyline. I think that’s the big distinction in literary fiction, and it’s what differentiates something like The Subterraneans and Weekend at Bernie’s.

So where do these heightened characters and places and objects come from? Writers write what they know, for the most part. This has been the major stumbling block for me and my writing career. I’ve read books by Bukowski, about his years of drinking, meeting different women, betting on the horses, living with almost no money and writing for an underground newspaper, living in roominghouses. I’ve read Burroughs, the trips into the jungle to find Yage, the travel all over the world, the Beat Hotel and Tangiers. And I’ve even been jealous of Henry Rollins, sleeping in the back of a U-Haul, a different city every day on the road with Black Flag. All of these people lived adventurous lives, while I haven’t. The closest I’ve been to being on the edge was maybe in college, but that’s nothing like On the Road. So part of my muse has been telling me that I need to go out and live to collect this content – to do like Hemmingway and fight in wars and fight bulls and drink 20 shots of whiskey for breakfast and everything else. And granted, if I could play the guitar or I found some gig that got me out of the house and all around the country, maybe I’d try it. But I’ve thought that the collection of content was a major deterrant in my writing career. I wrote one book called Summer Rain based on a summer in Bloomington, and it was fun to write (well, it’s still not done yet…) but I realized that there would never be a second book after this one, because if I stuck to this genre of autobiographical fiction, every book I wrote would be another Summer Rain.

But you don’t need to live it to write it, do you? Several of my favorite writers, most notably Mark Leyner, write stuff that never really happened. It’s all based on a mix of research, pop culture, current events, and sheer insanity. Someone like Leyner is pulling his content from the air, and it’s commendable work. When I mess with this, I find that the fictional content you create is only as good as the random junk floating in your head. I took a few weird college courses on music theory, cancer, third world politics, and astronomy, and I have a weird laundry list of interest and topics I like to read about, too. But when I do my best work on Rumored to Exist is when I do my best homework. I pick things up from other people, from newsgroups, from websites, from odd shows on the Discovery channel. And when everything works good, and when I’m saturated with this useless knowledge, the content flows. But other times, it doesn’t. And that’s what I’m trying to improve.

I just got interrupted, so I lost my train of thought. But what I think I was going to say is that I feel a need to research and challenge myself to look at new things and ideas, specifically for Rumored to Exist. I find that I need to look for a starting point for new and weird topics, and once that happens, everything snowballs and I’m doing plenty of good writing. My friend and fellow writer Michael Stutz recommended Robert Anton Wilson’s book Everything is Under Control, so I ran and got a copy of last night. He was 100% right – it’s this encyclopedia of weird conspiracy theories and secret societies that’s somewhat tongue in cheek and probably not even 10% correct, but it’s an excellent read. And now I’m thinking about Freemasons, Men in Black (not Will Smith), word virus theories, germ warfare, and a ton of other cool stuff. I have enough research material to keep me busy for a while.

The application of this material is the second part of what I talked about yesterday, the method. I don’t think I am going to be able to crack out a good explanation of this, since I haven’t even begun to think about it. But that’s a good discussion for later.

As always, I’m really looking for comments about this babble, especially since this self-discussion is becoming somewhat important to me. So please email me if you have any thoughts on the subject.



I’m at the point in my writing cycle where I’m overanalyzing how writing works. I often need to break apart stories and books and try to find what makes them readable, desirable, and functional. Although I feel that Rumored to Exist is a good book in many places, I don’t know how it will stand as a complete book, and I don’t know how I will come up with the ideas to finish it. Because it is so loose and free-form, there’s no cohesive story to follow, which puts me in the danger of never finishing. I’ve been hacking at Rumored for a little over two years, and I’m barely halfway done. Another round of edits could put me well below the halfway bar, if I start chopping the pieces I absolutely hate.

This means I start thinking about the theory of plot and structure of story. It also means I think about my interests and try to find new topics to research, combine, and twist into new ideas. It’s a nervous prospect, since I have absolutely no attention span right now, and I can never apply myself to projects like this. It’s the reason I could never learn a foreign language, or pull a decent GPA in largely scantron courses like psychology or sociology. So I might be off this kick before too long.

The perfect starting point and example is, of course, William S. Burroughs. He lived a life of ecclectic and bizarre connections: heroin, South America, homosexuality, classical literature, psychology, technology, and travel. He worked jobs just to find out what it was like, as a private detetective or exterminator, and took a strange path, studying at Harvard, going to Vienna for medical school, living in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and then going across the globe: Mexico, South America, Tangiers, Paris, Austria, New York, Kansas. His life provided the raw material to produce his books. He often went on about different topics, such as the Mayans, time travel, scientology, the corruption of a Christian society, drug dealers, and more. But he didn’t write straightforward narratives about his experiences, like Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller or something. It was more veiled in complicated structures; cutups, fragments, dreams and chaos used to frame the pieces of his stories.

If I wanted to rip off Burroughs entirely, the two basic pieces to investigate could then be defined as the content and the method. This sounds pretty arbitrary, but it’s an important distinction, because I think in most of your writing 101 classes, the division of story would be something like plot and character. I don’t think plot is required, because it’s really a part of method. The method of a story, especially something nonlinear, doesn’t have to include plot. It could use any mechanism that would pull the reader through the story. A book like Naked Lunch is not plot-driven. (The well-versed Burroughs scholar could argue that it is, but the first-time reader would disagree, so let’s stick with that.) And character is somewhat of a division of content. Although characters are important in WSB’s work, he doesn’t rely on a top-down cast like a Hollywood movie. And it isn’t a typical first-person narrative like so many literary works.

I don’t know where to start, and I don’t think I can investigate both of these today, but the easiest way for me to begin would be with content. I always try to find new, cool things to discuss in Rumored, be it designer drugs, high-tech weaponry, pop-culture icons, or obscure history references. I’m not always 100% happy with some of these things, and many have been cut or toned down as the editing of Rumored continues. I need to think of new topics, but I need to think about how they are discussed or applied, and that’s where it gets even more complicated.

Back to Burroughs – a lot of his work has a mystical, investigative approach. He talks about the Mayans and Ah Pook the Destroyer and all of that, with a spiritual approach. I don’t mean that he is a religious writer; it’s that the characters and reference – the content – relies on a religious framework to interact through his books. When he talks about heroin, it isn’t a Trainspotting sort of Calvin Klein ad for junk; he talks about it in a spiritual sense. He has created a culture which has its own minor morality plays based on the unique aspects of drug use and addiction. It’s not like a Hollywood movie where the use of drugs pushes one of the characters in the stereotypical inventory of characters through the stock five plot movements, i.e. I’m a high school cheerleader and I have a football player boyfriend; Someone offers me drugs and I try them so I can be pretty/popular/better; antics ensue; I weigh 500 pounds and smoke a pound of hash a day; I learn to love god. moral: don’t do drugs, kids! Burroughs seems to walk far outside of this, because he isn’t pushing a plot like they are. He might have some plot elements to keep the pages turning, but it’s not all designed to be a 2 hour movie of the week.

Although I haven’t read his stuff in years, I was thinking of Asimov as another example. He wrote all of these books about robots, but the books aren’t really about big aluminum men running around killing people or whatever. He took the angle of social commentary and engineered it around the limitations and issues of robotics. Asimov wasn’t a religious guy (If I remember correctly, he’s a Humanist, which is probably my closest fit, religion-wise) and his books aren’t knit together with a spiritual overtone. He takes his unique topics and works together the content with the political or sociological consequenses. Other writers would have a plot-driven theme about robots, but he uses a light plot to drive home the unique circumstanses of man creating artificial “life.”

So my homework for tonight is to come up with a laundry list of topics I could further explore and research for the universe created within Rumored to Exist. There are tons of things there, but many of them are free-floating. Someone might be injecting some cloning serum in his arm, but the purpose and placement of clones in the book is somewhat secondary. I think if I picked apart some of the topics I’ve discussed and brainstormed further mutations of them, there would be more coross-pollination of weird stuff and more ideas for new pieces.

And maybe tomorrow I can talk about method. Or maybe I’ll still be babbling about this.