Monday, November 13, 2017

The Writer's Life: Leaving a Permanent Trace of Who You Were


Matt Taibbi, Mark Ames and a sample eXile cover (source)

by Gaius Publius

Nothing catches the writer's life from the inside like this piece from Matt Taibbi.

He wrote the following paragraphs as part of a long apology responding to criticisms of his life and writing as a younger man in Russia at the expat publication The eXile with Mark Ames. If you want to read the piece for that — for the apology and explanation of what was happening at The eXile — please click the link and do so. For now, I want to focus on an observation Taibbi makes about one of the problems of being a lifelong writer.

After detailing all that he's now ashamed of in his earlier writing, he notes one of the unique problems faced by public artists, and especially by non-fiction writers. The job of a non-fiction writer is to expose your thoughts. The problem — since writers grow up in public, every wrong turn they make to achieve maturity lives forever, and also in public.

Taibbi starts:
Since I was a boy, all I ever wanted to be was a writer. That’s the irony of this week. I Can’t Breathe is the book I spent thirty years learning to write. Writers often speak self-referentially about “finding their voice,” but the painful and complex story of Eric Garner’s life and death is one I found had to be told without my voice, without linguistic cartwheels or jokes or any of the other circus tricks I learned to use to sustain my financial career over the years.

When you finally get to this place as a writer, there is an incredible sense of relief and pride. I felt that last week once I Can’t Breathe hit the shelves. But at the exact moment when I was finally disappearing from public view in the right way, I ruined it all by becoming an Internet scandal.
Thus starts the eXile explanations. Note, if you read this part, that Taibbi describes the writing in The eXile as "gratuitous viciousness, ... often demeaning and misogynistic content, and generally mean-spirited [in] tone."

He then says:
Writers often start out by writing terrible things, either to get attention or to imitate some other shocking or flamboyant writer from the past, whose personality was perhaps a better fit for that kind of approach.

As it happens, most of the great writers I grew up admiring were either outright insane people or defective as human beings in some other critical way in their private lives. But they somehow managed to produce great writing.

Moreover many of these voices shared a belief that producing good writing was more important than anything, more important than being good or bad, more important than achieving social justice aims, anything. ...
As a confused and depressed young man for whom writing at an early age become a primary means of making sense of the world, I believed in all of this with the force of a newly religious person. So I committed to this carpe diem ethos, under which nothing matters but what you put on paper. 
And now his key idea (and mine):
As I would later learn, the business of writing is more crucially about growing up in public. It can be incredibly painful and embarrassing, and it’s why so few people can stomach it in the most serious sense of the word, as a way of life.

Many people can hear the obvious things wrong with themselves. But to succeed in this profession you have to be willing to, at one time or another, hear people detail absolutely everything wrong with who you are. 
Which leads to a problem — how does a writer deal with the trash she or he writes in youth? What does a person say when it keeps coming up?
I have always believed that living forever with the dumb and failed things that you publish is how a writer apologizes. Ongoing embarrassment and loss of audience is the price of offensive work. You get readers back by growing and being better, not by apologizing. This merciless meritocratic system is a major incentive for literary restraint in most cases, especially in the Internet age.

So now, for instance, if people go back and look at the offensive things that I wrote 18 or 20 years ago, and decide never to read my columns in Rolling Stone or buy I Can’t Breathe, that is completely just. It’s how this business works.
Here's how that plays out in Taibbi's life:
When I returned to America, I began going through everything that we’d tried at the eXile – there was a lot of wincing during this time – and started down the long road of facing up to the failures of that period.

The eXile was where I learned to write. I tried everything in its pages: I tried being engaging, but also tried being vile and shocking. I tried autobiography as well as fiction. I tried juvenile pranks, but also serious journalism. I tried to imitate good writers (like Hunter Thompson and H.L. Mencken) and bad ones (like Jim Goad, the author of perhaps the only magazine ever more disgusting than the eXile, Answer ME!).

Stylistically I tried a me-first, look-at-how-cool-I-am style, tried another one that was more based upon being detached, reporting-heavy, and empathetic, and then spent a lot of time flailing in between.

In the cold light of day, away from the project, I read all of this again and found it horrifying, embarrassing, hurtful, and stupid. There was one day in particular when I had been away from it long enough to see this, and it was a long time before I could even look at an eXile again.

Nonetheless, some things I’d experimented with at the paper bled into my more modern work.
Thus the problem of being a lifelong writer. Most of us grow up and become adults by engaging in the kind of experimentation that exposes much that's wrong with us. For most of us, the ability to bury that past comes easily. We may have to deal from time to time with the college friend or former coworker who reminds us in front of others of our follies. "Remember that time you said [something or other] to [someone or other] and the next day [etc.]? Not smart, Joey..." — said with a laugh as we cringe and change the subject.

In that case, though, the moment passes, and the three or four people who were reminded, or for whom the information is new, forgive and forget ... mostly.

For a writer with a wide audience, however, those three or four people could be three or four hundred, three or four thousand, or potentially, three or four hundred thousand if the writer has since achieved a Taibbi-level readership. And what for us were words said in jest, words that disappear as quickly as the people who heard them forget them, are for a writer words etched on a stone that anyone who wishes to read them can visit. The people may leave and go on to other things, but the stone will always be there.

For good or bad, a decent writer's whole output will be visible long after the writer passes on. For good or bad. I would not want, for example, to have been Algernon Charles Swinburne. It was once said that he wrote like an angel ... and had nothing ever to say. It was also said that a writer should read just enough Swinburne to be sick of him; a kind of inoculation, in other words. If Swinburne were merely a party wit who never wrote a word, time would have been a much kinder judge of him. He might even have been praised for words that no one can quote.

A full-time writer often starts young, untooled and unschooled, horribly inexperienced in the craft, with all the flaws of a youthful personality on display. Then, if the writer succeeds, if she or he learns, matures, is published and acclaimed widely, those flaws will be available to readers, on full display, waiting the next inevitable reader comment, forever.

The writer's life.


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At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said... it's called life, growing up, learning, improving, becoming a fully formed human being. Writers (all artists, in fact) may go through this... or like Mozart, are born savants who never HAVE to learn.

Some, like everyone named trump, are born immature and misanthropic, and stay that way. They never learn nor improve as human beings... improving only as con men and criminals.

The introspection genes are lacking in those like the trumps... and exist in Taibbi.

Give me a million more Taibbis and a million fewer asswipes like those named trump and the world would be a markedly better place.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Hone said...

I avidly read Matt Taibbi and check the Rolling Stone often for his next article. He is a great writer. Keep on writing, Matt!

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excerpts. I love Matt but he forgets that some of us oldsters never signed up to FaceBook (and never will!).

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GP, did you see this:$/$/$/$/$

Or this:

Reinforcement for my prediction that it's already too late.

By 2020 even the notoriously circumspect scientific community will be saying the same.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Gaius Publius said...

Thanks for the climate links. Good read. I'm in the "it ain't over till it's over" camp, but agree that the prognosis is pretty bad.


At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If one is pushed off the Great Gorge bridge, it ain't truly over until the "splat" at the bottom... but... it's over. The science (gravity) is pretty solid on that.

This is really no different, sadly.

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

another one for you:

"There's no stopping global warming," Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, previously told Business Insider. "Everything that's happened so far is baked into the system."

That means that even if carbon emissions were to drop to zero tomorrow, we'd still be watching human-driven climate change play out for centuries. And we all know emissions aren't going to stop immediately.


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