Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Tapas

As I get back to work and normal routines, some odds and ends to start 2013.

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Washington Post writer and comics champion Michael Cavna wrote a lovely essay naming his "most compelling cartoon of the year," and I can't argue with his choice. I'll spoil the reveal but encourage you to read it anyway: it's a drawing cartoonist Richard Thompson did of his own brain while he was undergoing brain surgery to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, which forced him to retire his great comic strip "Cul de Sac." I posted my own appreciation of Richard and his work (which I was thrilled to learn Richard saw and liked) shortly before the last "Cul de Sac" strip, and Cavna's piece retells the story leading up to that decision as well as events since.

While I'm on the topic: Team Cul de Sac, the effort organized by Chris Sparks via the Michael J. Fox Foundation to help fund Parkinson's research, raised more than $53,200 last year. Matching funds from the Fox folks boosted that sum over $100,000. The bulk of the money came through sales of the Team Cul de Sac book, for which cartoonists drew their own interpretations of Richard's world and characters, as well as an auction of the book's original art. I helped. That's a good amount of money for a good cause.

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Occasionally I read something that perfectly captures my own thoughts, and sometimes thoughts I didn't even know I had, better than I could myself. This Gawker piece, "Journalism is Not Narcissism," is one. Here's the lede:

"Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation's college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you."

I was a newspaper reporter for a few years, fresh out of college, and my ideal for how I hoped to do the job could be summed up in two words: impartial and invisible. Neither is perfectly attainable, but if you're aware of your biases you can counterbalance them. Watch for assumptions and insinuations. Convey every responsible side of the story fairly. If I did my job right, no one would ever detect which candidates I liked or which issues I supported (although I hoped some might notice that this Fies fellow's stories read a bit more clearly and elegantly than most). Honestly, that was one of the existential burrs of journalism that chafed my hide: at the boneheaded age of 25, I could foresee a time when I'd rather do than write about those who did.

Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan goes on to skewer the notion that writers' best subjects are themselves.

"Left unsaid in most discussions of this sort of writing is the fact that most people's lives are not that interesting. Certainly, simple math will tell you that a 20-year-old has only a limited store of really compelling personal stories to tell. Most people who decide to base their writing careers on stories about themselves end up like bands that used their entire lifetime's worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up."

Yes. Though not directed at comics, the Gawker piece bullseyes my gripe with a ton of comics and graphic novels, which somehow--and I don't know why, although I've done some thinking about it--lend themselves to overwrought navel-gazing by putative Voices of Their Generation. Unless you're a refugee from Revolutionary Iran, you're just not fascinating enough to support one book, let alone the cottage industries that some creators mine from their lives. Benjamin Franklin didn't start writing his autobiography until he was 65 because he wasn't sure he'd accomplished enough to merit one. What a maroon!

This may sound like an odd complaint from the guy who wrote Mom's Cancer. But Mom's Cancer isn't my story, it's my mother's. Although I'm necessarily a character in it, as a writer and editor I ruthlessly cut everything that didn't advance my Mom's story, including much (not all) of my personal whiny angst. In fact, I approached writing that book very much as a journalist, determined to report what I experienced as honestly as I could. To the extent it works, I think that's what readers respond to and what still makes it different from similar stories.

You could name some counterexamples of fine young memoirists doing great work, and I'd concede there are exceptions, but I think Nolan reminds writers of something important that's out of style and being forgotten. Less looking inward, more looking out.

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I didn't know what to expect when I printed up 50 zines collecting the "Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian" and offered 45 for sale, but I'm pretty sure I didn't expect to only have two copies left two weeks later. Fantastic! My mailing list reads like a "Who's Who" of my favorite people (and I am keeping a list of which numbered limited-edition copy goes to whom, so that when they start showing up for enormous sums on eBay I can finger the culprit).

Numbers 44/45 and 45/45 are still available. After that, there'll be no more ever. Many thanks to everyone who supported my work by sending a few bucks my way, I don't take it for granted and hope you found it worthwhile.

But no returns.


Jim O'Kane said...

Editing yourself out of a story is one of writing's most difficult chores. I'm trying to figure out how to leave me out of the Sekrit Space History right now, even though History quite literally dropped itself on my front porch last week. Still, the workaround is to write about everything but yourself, and save all the cool stories for the media interviews.

Thanks again for AoOT-TB (am I the first one to use the acronym? 5/50 is not leaving my bookshelves, no how. Unless my kids wind up estate sale-ing everything after the funeral, of course.

Brian Fies said...

You may be the first person in human history to type the characters "AoOT-TB," and probably the last. I appreciate knowing I will be attending your estate sale by proxy. I can imagine some appraiser in the year 2062 (sure, why not?) reading AoOT-TB and thinking, "What th--?"

Mike said...

I was just saying nice things yesterday about Derf Backderf's "My Friend Dahmer," which is earning huge plaudits, and I thought how it was similar to "Mom's Cancer" in that it is a memoir of That One Moment, and you can't expect a second bite at the apple. But he has an established platform, and you've produced a second act. Maybe the reason you both told your extraordinary personal stories so well is that you are good storytellers and because, as you note, you both told it as a larger thing that "and this is how I felt and this is what I experienced." You each contained a second act.

And you each had Editor Charlie. Not to be underestimated.

The other thing this brings to mind is my interview with a murderer, who had not yet been indicted, and the notes to which were (unsuccessfully!) subpoenaed. I sat there and listened to his story and found it very interesting, but also had a sense of "oh, bullshit!" The trick to telling the story was not to say, "and here's some bullshit he told me" but to tell his story so accurately that the reader would get into it, but would also say, "oh, bullshit!"

The trick to telling the story is very much "show me don't tell me" in that, in Mom's Cancer and My Friend Dahmer, the reader doesn't just hear about someone else's feelings but disappears within the text and experiences the feelings.

In those stories, the word "I" is only a literary convention and may not come into it at all. But it is definitely not the source of your material -- because nobody cares about you.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mike, it means a lot from you.

Sometimes the worst thing you can do to an interview subject is quote them accurately. Give 'em enough rope, and I think Pulitzer's ghost would forgive a smile when they hang themselves.

Walter Underwood said...

I've felt that same journalistic conflict, that writing about something really is different than participating.

One of the things I learned shooting for The Rice Thresher was that I could either be at a party or cover a party, but not both. More than a few times, I got my pictures, then put the camera away and went back to the party. At least once, I put the beer down, went back to get the camera and get more pictures, then put it away again, ...