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The following post was a result of meeting one of my favorite authors, Stephen Elliott. His new book, The Adderall Diaries, is due to be released September, 2009. If you haven’t read Happy Baby, or his collection of stories My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up, get on it. Seriously. He crafts aggressively good prose.

I could say that I started writing this blog as a result of losing my job. I could write that I was fired on a street corner that faced a homeless shelter and rehab clinic. I could write about how I left the scene of the firing to attend an AA meeting and then returned to the office to collect my things. About how I advised my former boss that the next time he decides to fire an employee he should do it on a Friday so he would get a full week’s worth of work out of them first. It had been his first firing. I could write all of this and it would be true.

When the country was riveted by the James Frey debacle, when some gathered pitchforks to run him out of the publishing world while others still lavished praise, I was just confused. Did it matter if all of his story was true? Any of it? The answer comes down to semantics. You can’t sell a memoir as memoir if it’s fiction. And I think it’s at that point of mislabeling that lawyers get involved.

There is truth in every story. It might not necessarily be the author’s. It might not be identifiable, there may only be history in a glimmer of detail. I’m fascinated by the seam where truth and fabrication meet. I crave knowing how to tackle non-fiction in a way that keeps the writer and reader both entertained and suspending disbelief. I certainly don’t want to write about something that bores me. I’m not going to dedicate a post to chemistry teachers or to accountants (sorry), although I’m sure there are facets of each occupation that are mind-blowing. I want to write about my experiences, and my opinions on certain topics, not only because I think I’m special, but because I believe I can show how special I am in a way that’s interesting to read.

Stephen Elliott wrote a book called Happy Baby that was put out by McSweeney’s a few years ago. The copy I got from the library was hard-cover and had a cool inlay on the front. I put it on my floor next to my bed and thought of reading it, if I got to it. I had a lot of things to do.

“I have that book,” Simon said when he saw it. “It was a hard read.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s just hard. It’s intense. It was good, though,” he said.

I picked up the book. I read it over the course of the next two days. I was glued to it. I didn’t want it to end.

When autobiography and fiction dance well together it feels effortless to the reader. For me, personally, I’m aware that the writer of fiction must have some familiarity with their material, may it be the location, the characters, or the circumstances. For me, reading Happy Baby felt like the author set their life into a narrative, dressed their associates in different clothes, and watched how things could have been, and sort of were.

I assume that people read Happy Baby because it is such a tough read. Much of Stephen Elliott’s work focuses on particular themes, including the foster care system, abuse, ]aimlessness, and, of course, kinky sex. Much of it the author admits is true, in fact, in his later book of stories, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up, he disclaims that some of the stories are fiction, but all of the sex is fact. As he says at the end of the introduction, “This is not a memoir, but it’s damn close. And I’m OK with that. And I’m OK with you knowing that.” Reading about a character’s vulnerability and knowing it’s the author’s vulnerability somehow makes the work transcend both fiction and memoir. For a writer, to convey traumatic personal experience through narrative well requires an inherent sense of tact and a level of self-awareness that can only be rivaled by monks and psychiatrists.

Lately I was beginning to doubt my abilities, and I was starting to feel the shadow of writers’ block stretching across my keyboard, so I wrote to Stephen asking how he did it. I wanted to know everything. I felt like sending myself to his office in San Francisco in the form of a hologram like Princess Leia. Help me, Stephen Elliott, you are my only hope.

Fortunately he was heading to Portland for the visiting authors series at Reed College, and he was generous enough to offer me an hour of his time as well as a copy of his essay “Why I Write,” parts of which are quoted here. We shot the shit at a Portland geek hangout filled with vegan food and gamers. It‘s important to say that Stephen Elliott does not come across as a sissy. You can read about him being tied up, abused, and broken down, but in person he‘s exceedingly confident, articulate and charming. Separate from a total fangirl crush, here’s a bit of what I left with.

After all I have heard about getting an agent or pushing your manuscript, there is apparently a lot of value in the slush pile as far as Stephen is concerned. (The slush pile for you newbies is a collection of unsolicited manuscripts.) That was how Happy Baby was discovered. If your manuscript is solid enough and you submit it to the slush pile, anyone who takes the time to read it will see that you are a talented undiscovered writer, which can make you a hidden goldmine. When I asked Stephen later on about the Stegner Fellowship that he had been awarded, and if he thought that was a decent method of entering the field, his response repeated the point. “Fellowships aren’t the way to get published. Submit to literary journals, there are a lot of them out there, in the slush pile.”

Stephen insists that to get published it isn’t the usual Hollywood “not what you do but who you know” scenario, you don’t need to know anybody.

“For short stories and personal essays and poems in particular, just write and send them. Sometimes writers spend all their energy pitching articles and don’t write anything, as if they’re waiting for permission. By the time the editor responds the writer might not even want to write the article anymore. There are many publications that are only great because they take the slush pile seriously. And agents read those journals, often finding their clients.”

So, obviously, after being discovered, skyrocketing into popularity, and receiving glowing reviews, it all comes down to money, right? Wrong.

“No one is paying me to write what they want me to,” he says. For him it’s all about perfecting the craft, being a tireless editor, and creating. It’s gone beyond the original call that most of us have — to communicate — and has become his method of processing.

“It’s about knowing myself, working through issues, understanding who I am in relation to the world around me. When I’m at my best I don’t know where I’m going. Writing is an exploration…I still write to communicate, which as I get older is less about screaming and more about connecting, though it’s about screaming too.”

He insists that his goal is simply to make a great book. “Only great books stick around,” he says, and it dawns on me that everything, from recording history with words to the actual art of writing itself, comes down to permanence. We all want to be invincible. Our memories, the ones that plague us and haunt us in nightmares and behavior patterns, they’re already living on indefinitely, like invisible, nostalgic vampires. By writing about them we make them more real and yet, somehow, less frightening.

“If a writer is offered ten thousand to publish a perfect book, or twenty thousand for just an all right book, they’re going to choose twenty. It’s all about the money. But if you ask them to remember why they started writing, that’s the way to present it. It’s about writing a perfect book,” he concludes.

I didn’t point out that I have twelve dollars in my bank account.

I ask Stephen if he minds getting pigeon holed as “the writer who writes about kinky sex.” He laughs and tells me that he gets asked that a lot, and then he says no. The only person who can force him to be characterized a certain way is himself. Again, it comes down to the simple fact that he writes what he wants to write. What the world and his critics do with that isn’t really his business.

I ask my burning question: is becoming a stripper a good or bad career move for a writer? I’ve been fascinated with the idea of tossing my five foot tall, flat-chested frame into the ring of Portland’s thriving strip club culture for quite some time now, I’ve written about it extensively on this blog. I’ve wondered if that sort of a jarring experience would help or hurt my craft. Stephen had been an exotic dancer at one point, calling it his “stripper year,” though it had been a sort of occupational hazard of being a full-time heroin user. Considering the myriad of stories he’s written, and the way he relays the experience, I figure it can’t make my writing suffer. Besides, I’d offer pictures.

“Never do something thinking that you can write about it later. That shouldn’t be the reason why you do something,” he says. I feel like a kid who asked their parents a dumb question. “Think of writing as a hobby. Think of it as a really fun thing you do. Don’t rely on it as a way to make a living,” he adds. Too late. Moving on, I turn the conversation to his new book, a mix of true crime and memoir called The Adderall Diaries, due out from Greywolf Press next fall.

“This is the best book I’ve written. So far,” he says. He seems genuinely excited, and relays the tale of Hans Reiser, the famous computer programmer accused of slaying his wife. There were resulting false murder confessions that led to Stephen’s personal detective work, ties to criminals, and the progressively difficult relationship that he has with his father, who also confessed to a murder. It sounds intense and intensely personal. The following night when I hear him read two sections of the book at Reed College, my curiosity is roused. It’s the unmistakable voice of the author, recalling sublimely devastating situations with tact and raw emotion. I want to do that.

The reason why I was compelled to write to Stephen in the first place is because sometimes I feel like giving up. It becomes difficult to struggle, to not know if I’m going to make rent, to revisit the articles or stories that I’ve written and be thrown, eyeballs-first, into a pit of writing self-loathing. I asked if he ever thinks about giving up.

“Why would I give it up?” he smiles. From a man who writes from the gut, that’s what I needed to hear. There’s no reason to, so long as I’m writing what I want to write, I’m doing far more than just surviving.

Photograph of the author Stephen Elliott by Lydia Lunch

Photograph of the author Stephen Elliott by Lydia Lunch

You can purchase Stephen Elliott’s other books on Amazon, or read some of his work including An Oral History Of Myself on his personal site StephenElliott.com. If any of you are familiar with his work and would like to start a Teen Beat style fan club, write me: AinsleyDrew at gmail dot com. Understand that I’m the president, you can be the treasurer.

Regular, whiny Jerk Ethic will be back in action by the end of the week. I figured I’d spice things up this time with an interview and some personal narrative.

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3 Comments

  1. Really interesting insights on what it’s like to be a writer

  2. Thanks for a good read Ainsley — I’m going to check out his work.

  3. HA WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM A DOM ?SOME DOMS GO TO FAR BUT THATS WHY YOU CALL THE LAW IF THEY START TO SHOWSIGNS OF ANY ABUSE…….. NOT LETTING YOU GO ANYWHERTE IS SORTA ABUSE & THEY CAN BE CHARGED AS WELL FOR HOOKERING/PROS. W/ OUT A LICENSE ! 🙂 BUT NO NOT TRUE ON THE SUBJECT DOMS ARE NOT LIKE DATING A DRUG ACD. PERSON.


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