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06: August 24, 2008

I Suck Ass

The last three or four hours that I have spent on the upkeep of this blog have been devoted to denigrating, demolishing, casting aspersions upon, and otherwise pooping all over brother memoirists Frey, Sedaris, and Burroughs for their propensity for making stuff up in their so-called memoirs. Who knew that I was such a mean-spirited little imp?

While the hypothetical reader of my recent outbursts—and I begin to suspect that the hypothetical reader is about the only type I’ve got left—could be forgiven for mistaking me for a paragon of virtue with regard to truth-telling in memoirs, that reader would be unambiguously and unhypothetically wrong, for I have lied to the American people—or at least to the 0.00283 percent of them who have bought my first book.

Here is a paragraph from the latter pages of How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul, with emphasis added.

She describes my landlady, who attends Community Outreach lectures at school and is chummy with my dean. Yow.

The “she” in question is the shockingly young girlfriend who figures prominently in those final chapters, a student at the university where I was a full-time faculty member at the time. She is explaining her growing reluctance to visit me at home because of the uncomfortable encounters she sometimes has with a strange woman on her way out of the building.

The paragraph originally read as follows…

She describes my landlady. Yow.

The modifying clause "who attends Community Outreach lectures at school and is chummy with my dean" was added very late in the game, and is problematic in that, as far as I know, my landlady never set foot on my campus and had no acquaintance with any faculty member but myself.

Now, in politics, lies have been taxonomized as lies, damned lies, and some third category which escapes me at the moment. And it seems to me that lies told in memoirs likewise fall into different categories, and are not all equally worthy of condemnation.

The fake-naming of "characters," for example, may be, technically, a "lie," but is the least that a memoirist can do for those real-life persons who have been so unceremoniously shanghaied into our books. The compositing of two or more "minor" personages into a single character (and no less a memoirist than Barack Obama admits to doing this) likewise seems well within the realm of acceptability.

And then there is dialogue, which every memoirist I've ever read has used liberally, but which is, at best, the writer's reconstruction of a conversation from a few dimly remembered shards. In short, even in the best of cases, it's 95 percent BS--but in my view, reconstructed dialogue is still fair game if the author makes a sincere effort to preserve the authentic flavor of the long-since-lost-in-the-ether conversation; and if the author puts into a character's mouth only words that the real-life doppelganger might actually have uttered.

(It seems almost cruel at this point to keep dragging poor Burroughs into the discussion, but he always seems to be sitting there when one is looking for the perfect example of how a thing ought not to be done. One of the many blunders that got him in such hot water with the Running With Scissors family was his unilateral decision to imbue one of its members with a passionate affection for the word cunt, a word which the real-life person herself averred that she never used. Now, it seems to me pretty safe to say that one of the many ways of dividing the human race is along the lines of the usage of the c-word. There are those who tend to use it and (with the exception, perhaps, of the odd Touretter) are well aware that they tend to use it, and those who don’t use it and are equally unshakable in their awareness of their non-usage. Thus, repeatedly putting the c-word into the mouth of a non-aficionado of that word strikes me as a brilliant shortcut to litigation. But that’s just me.

All this brings us around to the issue of wholesale fabrication. Of lying. Of, as the Houyhnhnms that Gulliver met, lacking a word in their language for it, termed “saying the thing which is not.” Or, what David Sedaris, likewise lacking a word in his language for it, calls “exaggeration.”

As noted above, I totally made up factoids about my former landlady. The paragraph I have cited comes from a chapter in which I give some examples of the danger that I had placed myself in by engaging in this socially unacceptable relationship. It is true that the landlady kept tabs on the comings and goings of the young lady, and that her doing so was very Yow-worthy news to me indeed. However, I couldn't make clear to the reader just why the landlady's snooping bode so ill for me without giving away the surprise ending. Therefore, I made up some stuff to imply that the landlady's knowledge of my affair could torpedo my career.

I remember being annoyed with myself for resorting to this subterfuge even as I typed in the damning clause. But at the same time, some deep internal voice sniveled:

They’ll never catch me.

I knew that even if a determined, fact-checking journalist should come after me with the pluck and verve that such journalists actually did later bring to bear on Frey, Sedaris, and Burroughs, no one would go so far as to track down my landlady, the minorest of minor characters, in order to pin her down on these throwaway factoids. (Indeed, it was uncommonly paranoid of me to even think in those terms at the time, writing, as I was, in a pre-Freygate era.)

I do not claim to be making a clean breast of things here. There may be other fabrications embedded in my first book that have not clung to my conscience as tenaciously as the one described above. Indeed, the point I’m making is simply that it is so very, very easy to talk oneself into believing that something is true if that thing dovetails neatly with one’s writing objectives, whether the goal is to make the work funnier, sexier, more dramatic, more commercially viable, or, as in the case cited, simply to tighten the narrative.

One of these days I intend to break out HTPUJCADYIS—now that some years have gone by without my devoting any attention to it—with a somewhat more clinical and cynical eye. Look for a future posting which I’m hereby giving the tentative title: HTPUJCADYIS: What’s Bullshit and What’s Horseshit.

Just like fellow smarmy philanderer John Edwards, I intend to become my own worst critic.

Before I resume being my own worst critic, however, pride won’t quite let me abandon this topic without trumpeting one of the few ethical bright spots of my writerly career. (After all, this is my blog, and it's becoming increasingly clear to me that if I ever want to see kind words about Josh Muggins written anywhere, I'm going to have to write those words myself.)

In my early 30s I got regular exposure and a dollop of local notoriety as a feature writer for Tokyo Journal, simultaneously published in the US at that time as Japan Journal. When new management took over in the early 90s, they launched several overdue stylistic improvements to the magazine along with two unwelcome reforms: the chloroforming of Japan Journal, and rather slipshod editing techniques.

At great pains I undertook an experiential assignment in which I insinuated myself as a pupil in a “Manners School” for young eligible ladies, where I learned the proper way to bow, to kneel, to answer a telephone, to serve tea, etc. In the process, I took copious notes, including quotes from my teachers, the proprietress of the school, classmates, and so forth.

When the article came out in print, I was astonished to find that two of my sources had been conflated into a single composite source—as a result of which, words uttered in reality by one person were transplanted into the mouth of a completely separate life form. (This, in a nonfiction magazine piece in which real names were used.)

I declined to work on further pieces for the magazine, a gesture which propelled me into Unpublished Writers' Limbo for over a decade until I got my first book in print. So you see, doing the right thing is not an entirely alien concept to me.