Y’all alright? Managing to keep your spirits high despite the minefield of sadness that is 2016?
I’m writing you right now from Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and my brain is having difficulty chewing on some ideas about entertainment mediums. The good news is I’m getting some pretty solid revelations in understanding the essay form, creative nonfiction, and professional wrestling.
Yes, I’m serious.
Let me back up a bit. I’m painfully aware that my relationship with entertainment is different than most. I aspire to be a magician, metaphorically speaking. I’m almost more interested in how the spell is cast and the audience that the spell is effective on.
We all have different entertainments that cause our everyday, shit-filled lives to be tolerable. That is to say, even when your Facebook feed isn’t a buffet of sad and frustrating that makes you consider how employable you’d be in a foreign land, life can get pretty hard and overwhelming. It’s why we own pets, why we let Taylor Swift in our earbuds, why we canter about the countryside collecting virtual monsters on devices somehow named after the thing Alexander Graham Bell is associated with inventing.
Entertainment in all its mediums has a number of purposes, but chief among them is to entertain—to cast a spell that makes us forget for just a moment how high our debt is or how a lost love pangs us. Even things that reach higher—like lofty literary novels or a difficult art films—chiefly function as entertainment. Don’t you dare bring this up at your next pretentious party. I’d sooner have you show a five year old how the rabbit is pulled out of a hat.
For the snooty folk among us , who inhale Kierkegaard like wine and cheese, the difficulty of the work is part of the mechanism of the spell. Likely, an episode of Greys Anatomy can’t have the same opiate effect on them as it does a swamped, working-class mother of three, so they might call the ABC drama trite—but the tweed jacketed wine drinker at an academic dinner party and that overworked mother want the same thing. We all want the spell. We all want the opiate. We all want the entertainment.
Take the silly novella Ben and I wrote, Detroit 2020. I hate to make assumptions (outside of those done tone-in-cheek above) but I doubt either our tweed aficionado or our mother of three would think much of it. It’s weird, full of gore and dark humor, and not quite political satire and not quite bizarro fiction. To some the spell absolutely works. Audience is everything, right? But that’s not good enough for me. I want to know why the spell works for some and not others, and how I can exploit that. Can I sneak my weird shit onto some unsuspecting fan of realist fiction if I learn the mechanisms of a James Baldwin incantation?
But this is something I wish to have better understanding of for other reasons, not the least of which being communication about the dumb crap that makes me happy. I’ve probably gotten more narrative fulfillment from watching performers fake beat each other up in WWE the last year, even (and sometimes especially) when the writing is terrible. I fall for their spell. I dig it, man, I just do. I think a lot of others would too, but the OH MY GOD YOU WATCH THAT FAKE SHIT response is really hard to articulate around. What’s that have to do with essays? I’ll get there, don’t worry.
Matthew Gavin Frank is here on island trying to teach us his dope nonfiction skills and it’s breaking my brain in the best kind of way. I spent the first day or two feeling like he and I were speaking a different language. I kept questioning him over and over with different words, not realizing that I was constantly circling around the same false premise: the essay has to be factually true.
To be honest, I’ve been struggling with this since I wrote about my flirtation with the justice system on here. I’ve never been sure artistically if I’m supposed to be self pubbing novellas about cyborg versions of bad politicians, doing standup comedy, writing plays, or playing music. Sometimes it seems wisest to pursue all of these at once out of fear of picking the wrong path, but after my piece about getting arrested on here has become the most read thing I’ve ever written, I’m forced to consider another path: creative nonfiction.
Frankly, I’ve always seen creative nonfiction just as serious memoir work where I expose my family’s dirty laundry and hopefully end up on NPR telling Terry Gross that my brilliance is the result of not being hugged enough. But Matt seems to chase the same weird rabbit trails that my brain demands to follow, writing about squids and food and pot farms and birds. He doesn’t make it look easy, but fuck, he makes it look fun.
Today in class he proposed that the essay medium isn’t about portraying absolute fact, rather it’s about trying to convey what the essayist perceives as a truth. That is to say, the fear of being Bryan Williams talking about an attack on a helicopter ride that never happened shouldn’t be there. You aren’t a fucking reporter, you’re a fucking writer. Your job is to write about the helicopter attack if that presents the truth you’re trying to convey.
Matt tried to tell me this when we met on Saturday in the Boston airport over a sandwich I barely ate because he was delightfully questioning me with manic fervor. I expressed some of my misgivings about creative nonfiction and he took me on a conversational trip through Herman Melville, some guy name W. G. Sebald I pretended to have heard of before, and somehow getting to homing pigeons.
He’s a cool dude.
The lesson didn’t click then, even though the words are the same. I still mistook creative nonfiction and reporting to be much closer bedfellows. But today, when he said it again, a weird association in my brain happened that unlocked the concept:
it’s just like wrestling.
That dude that wrote Chronicle made a great video on this subject that I’m going to paraphrase here. Wrestling is a lot of things. It’s live theater. It’s high stakes athleticism. It’s narrative storytelling. It never really pretends to be actual sports competition more then Game of Thrones pretends to be about killing and dragons, and yet whenever you say you watch it the prevailing response is, “You know it’s fake, right?”
There’s an overwhelming cultural misconception from those outside of professional wrestling’s audience and creators that one of it’s main goals is trick the audience into believing that real combat is taking place. Hence, “You know it’s fake, right?” As if there isn’t anything appealing about a show that tries to tell a narrative story with diverse performers and highly athletic, high-risk stunts. They can’t see it as that, because they weigh it by comparing it to actual combat like MMA or boxing rather than comparing it to televised fiction like The Walking Dead.
Similarly, creative nonfiction and the essay are close brothers with poetry and fiction, but my brain weighed it by the rules of journalism. This might seem obvious to you, but trust me, it took this weird wrestling connection to get there, and I think there’s something to be understood here. When I’d tell a story on this blog or on stage as a comedian, I’d feel a twinge of guilt about embellishing something here or there to make it a more entertaining or say clearer how the true event made me feel.
Matt had something to say about that too, way back on Saturday. It’s just making sense now. “That fear is making an assumption of your audience that they aren’t smart enough to know what you’re doing.”
No fan of magic shows watches Penn and Teller thinking they are supernatural. No fan of wrestling thinks Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose are actually trying to murder each other. No fan of creative nonfiction thinks they are getting a report with journalistic rigor. But when these artists are good enough, you can’t tell the difference.