The famous Nora Ephron maxim, passed down to her from her mother, that “everything is copy” (copy, here, being material for your writing) has been recycled by her admirers and fellow writers too many times to count. It’s an important reminder to mine your own life for memories and anecdotes that can enrich stories or lay the foundation of the story itself. Easily applied to both fiction and non-fiction, it’s hard to imagine someone entirely eclipsing such a habit. But it can often be manipulated and misused, with the intriguing or shocking snapshots valued more than the actual craft of writing.
I thought of this problem recently when watching an episode of GIRLS in which the central character, Hannah, is offered a book contract with a new publisher, only to find out that the rights to her book are still owned by her old publisher and cannot be released for three years. As is her wont, she throws a tantrum. Her book draft being a compilation of absurd and humiliating life accounts, she worries that her “whole life is in that book” and she’ll have no fresh material if she chooses to start anew. She wonders, “Now, what am I going to do, live another 25 years to create another body of work to match the one they stole from me? What if nothing happens?”
Her frustration, of course, is understandable, but her very specific concern highlights something truly problematic about her conception of herself as a “writer.” Hannah’s currency is her ridiculous behavior and her shameless documentation of it, but is that enough to qualify you as a writer? Does that process require any self-reflection, any skill in organizing your thoughts or depicting something in a genuinely interesting way? Not necessarily. Though we haven’t been privy to any of the character’s actual writing, it’s not hard to imagine that what makes her theoretical book captivating is not some special mode of crafting reality, but simply our endless attraction to messy characters who we can laugh at, not with. It’s in line with our reality TV obsession and our constant tracking of a troubled celebrity’s ups and downs.
In our age of the Internet, this trope is especially prevalent. Just look at the repellent articles on sites like XOJane where they have an entire column devoted to It Happened to Me tales, running the gamut from “My Butt Exploded with Pus” (good morning!) to “I Had My Breast Implants Removed While I Was Awake.” Similar stories abound on other sites, even those considered more reputable, because as Hannah’s pseudo-publishers know all too well, those stories get the most clicks…those stories sell. I’ll grant that ridiculous tales can be entertaining, but does the unabashed retelling of them immediately transform someone into a capital-W writer?
Hannah’s reaction to her book conundrum tells me that, in her case, it doesn’t. Though I think society is too quick to assign broad tropes to writers, confining them to neat little boxes such as the alcoholics, the egotists, the self-effacers, etc., I do believe that there are certain truths that can be found within the lifestyle or mindset of most people who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) regularly. Though it’s often therapeutic, it also stems from a creative urge, even if your story is based in reality. Where most writers might end up seeing an exciting (and, yes, scary) challenge in Hannah’s position, she appears to have zero faith in her ability to create something new because she values the plot points more than the art of putting them together. She seems to have gotten this far simply because of her material, not as a result of what she’s done with it.
And if that’s the way your road to being published is paved, you can be certain you’re treading unsteady career territory (read: a second book is not a given). The best writers value editing, the continuous need to reframe or rephrase something…almost always trying to better a sentence in whatever way possible. It can, of course, be taken too far, as seeking perfection will only stunt your progress, but I’m not referring to endless altering here.
I personally, in my writer-zygote status, change details when it suits the story, and even when it’s non-fiction, I am never not thinking about how to phrase something in the most interesting way I can. But when weird or noteworthy things happen, my first thought is rarely “I should write about this” or “I should milk this for all it’s worth,” and a lot of really absurd stuff has come and gone without me feeling the need to share it. It’s one of the main reasons I resent comparisons to GIRLS or even Lena Dunham, who, though I believe to be truly talented, can also appear guilty of telling stories just for shock value. Some of her published pieces in The New Yorker have bored me immensely and seem entirely lacking in what one might, yes—somewhat pompously—call “writerly craft.” They’ve caused me to wonder if they were placed there simply for the name-recognition of Dunham and the fact that she shares the usual absurd anecdotes that we’ve come to expect of her. But the fact is that I’ve read more engaging pieces about someone boiling a pot of water than many of those stories that suffocate you with tales seeped in blood, sex, and tears.
There’s a place for those retellings, and I’ve certainly written some myself. But I’m learning how easy it is to smell when that material is gratuitous, which I’m trying to avoid in my own ramblings as much as possible. I could write about the time I woke up half-naked in college in someone else’s bed with a party-size bag of trail mix spilled on top of me (yes), or the time my friend threw up all over a hotel’s elevator, walked out, and immediately kissed the guy he would come to date for three years. These stories would probably make you laugh, but, otherwise, they’d trend towards being vapid, and rather pointless.
I think if there’s any “millennial problem” (a concept which in itself is overwrought), it’s simply a reliance on over-sharing that’s not grounded in anything deeper or more valuable…our hyper-appreciation of stories that are astounding in lieu of those that might truly stimulate or challenge a reader. Which is not to say that (like certain folk I’ve mentioned in a prior piece) I think that everyone should wash their mouths out with soap and take five steps backward to the fifties, but simply that I wish people would put a little more thought into what they’re saying and why. And in a writer’s case—in Hannah’s case—how they’re saying it.
If she paid more attention to any of the above, I think she’d be calmer in the face of her shitty situation. She’d know that you don’t necessarily need bewildering life experiences to write an interesting or intriguing novel, that most of what attracts a reader to a writer is something else entirely…which is, essentially, how the story is told. Adam’s loopy sister tries to show Hannah the light here, claiming, “You wrote all of those wonderful stories and now you know you can do it!” But, of course she doesn’t have that confidence, because the simple act of life re-appropriation does not necessarily make you a writer.