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Writing About Writers

(I wrote this for Bad Signal this afternoon, but it didn’t go through. So I’m putting it up here, so I can get a look at it with some perspective.)

There’s an oft-spoken rule in the writing of fiction: don’t write about writers. It’s the cheapest version of “write what you know,” and it’s often creepy and self-serving. You run the risk of being labelled the writer of a “Mary Sue” by people who know nothing about writing — the term comes from a fan-fiction writer who’d insert herself into Star Trek stories to save the day and fuck Spock or something, and denotes a character who stands in for the writer within the fiction to act as the hero. There are tens of thousands of people out there who still think I’m Spider Jerusalem, which is the irritant penalty for breaking the rule and spending five years writing about a writer.

But there is a Romance about writing. There’s a truth in Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, with Bill Burroughs rubbing bug powder into the clitoris of his monstrous typewriter. Cronenberg himself spoke about the difficulty of externalising the Romance of writing: it’s just a guy sitting there writing, maybe he wears a hat, I dunno. That was one of the big problems I had to solve in TRANSMET.

There’s Ben Gazzara as Charles Bukowski, reciting poetry as he slides into Ornella Muti from behind in TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS; not a perfect film, but I like it better than (the better-made, better-acted) BARFLY. Stephen King’s MISERY, of course, every known author’s nightmare.

You even get hints of it in STUDIO 60 (and there could stand to be more, but Sorkin probably feels he’s airing enough dirty linen as it is): Matthew Perry in a black suit and tie, exhausted as he slips out of the wrap party early, ten years of stress cut into his face now, his brain clearly shot, leaving alone. That hideous clock in his office, ticking down the seconds until drop-dead, is a masterstroke.

There’s Romance in it, because it wrecks us all the same way. We’ve all been Jack Kerouac, sitting in a cafe writing as the sun comes up, blasted by sleeplessness and sex or drugs or music or booze and just trying to get it all down while we can, because we’ll be somewhere else tomorrow and we’re dead longer than we’re living.

One of my favourite films is TALK RADIO — I’ve stolen so many camera moves from that film – and particularly the climatic sequence of Eric Bogosian glaring at his microphone with wild hatred and just blasting his audience in one long monologue. Writing on the fly. The Romance is in his ex-wife going to a phone to call into him while he’s on air, and when asked why, she says, “He’s all alone out there.”

I bring it back to TALK RADIO because for the last year I’ve been thinking about writing something set in the near future about a radio monologuist. I was struck some years ago by Peter Biskind’s description of Jack Nicholson’s characters in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, a broadcaster: “he soliloquises into the wee hours, getting lost in the tangle of his own memories.”

TRANSMET is my personal haunting, now: I can’t let myself repeat that book. But broadcasting fascinates me, as do people who speak the truth, or at least speak to something in us. Radio seems weirdly archaic now, even with the recent innovations of podcasting and Visual Radio. It comes from another time: for me, it comes from my childhood. To half of my audience, it probably comes from their parents’ lives, a previous generation. Podcasting has given rise to things like street monologues: the likes of Jean Snow or Momus will stick an iTalk on their iPod and record their thoughts as they walk around Tokyo or Edinburgh, and upload it when they get home. There’s the real-world scaffolding for a story about a live street monologuist, whose voice is shot straight from the device on to the radio waves. It’d be nice to write someone verbal again: Jones is always either listening or muttering.

(JONES breaks a crucial rule of heroic drama: Steve McQueen would always have scenes of him listening to explanations rewritten, because, in his words, “I don’t want to be the man who listens. I want to be the man who KNOWS.”)

I’m rambling, and have probably broken the K limit on this posting. Let’s see if this sends.

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  1. […] 6 – Writing About Writers “There are tens of thousands of people out there who still think I’m Spider Jerusalem, which is the irritant penalty for breaking the rule and spending five years writing about a writer.” (tags: criticism monologues broadcasting romance indentification characters writers writing Ellis Warren) […]

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