Dear James Franco:
On behalf of everyone who is skeptical about your writing career—though understandably weary to voice their opinions publically, given the possible ramifications—I’d like to resolve the debate. Unfortunately, a quick and easy answer is impossible. For your benefit, I’ve broken the matter down into three chapters. I’ll post them consecutively over the next week or two. But let it be known: I don’t think anyone has the right to determine whether you’re a “real” writer or not.
Chapter One: To thine own self be… eh, fuck that. Polonius was full of shit. What the hell did he know?
But before I go ahead and assess your art in accordance to a reductive, ontologically monovalent definition of what characteristics signify a real writer as opposed to a hack; before I address what some have construed to be your violation of our literary subculture’s ethical code; before I perform a 2nd-year Graduate Assistant-style analysis of your work, I should contextualize the argument by posting a watered-down version of your C.V. (this does not include your acting career). Let’s make sure I’ve got this right.
You received an undergraduate degree in English from UCLA in 2008. One source claim you took 64 credits one semester. You were in a rush.
Then, all at once, you attended Columbia University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, NYU’s Tisch School for film, Brooklyn College for Creative Writing, and a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College. You’re currently working on your PhD. in English at Yale, meanwhile attending the Rhode Island School of Design to study—what?—digital media? In 2012, you will be attending the prestigious Creative Writing doctoral program at the University of Houston. Some Franco-snoopers purport that this might not happen, due to residency requirements.
I’ve had a hell of a time trying to piece together your bibliography, but from what I’ve gathered, you’ve published in McSweeny’s, Esquire, Ploughshares, the Wall Street Journal; have written reviews for the Paris Review blog; have had a collection of short stories, Palo Alto, published by Simon and Schuster, and your first novel will be published by Amazon.
Pretty impressive, James. I’d say that you’ve done a writer’s work, but that still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not you’re a real writer. Had I the patience, I’d mine all available James Franco interviews for anything that would help me understand what compels you to write. But since you and I are in the business of taking shortcuts and telling lies, I’m going to do what my gut tells me to do, and make some generalized assumptions.
You and I share a life-consuming passion for reading and writing, and therefore, we can say with reasonable certainty that we’re similar, at least on one principal level. In light of our identical fervor for the written world, I might find an answer to the Franco riddle by looking inward. If I can prove that I’m a real writer, then I can prove that you’re one too, by virtue of our likeness.
Here’s the problem: I’m not a real writer.
I’m a shameful man, James. I do real writing, and I surely read a lot, but what I do and what I am are not always compatible. For instance, a New Age guru named Lynn once told me that my virtues aren’t aligned. Another guru, Lynn’s Buddhist husband, told me that my crown chakra is displaced. It’s hovering a foot away from my head, somewhere on my left. Also, it’s leaking. He said that I’m ejecting a fountain of “psychic snot” everywhere (is this not similar to writing a memoir?).
Not only is my spiritual body detached from my corporal body, but some of my physiological components, though locked inside me, insist on being located elsewhere. Consider my spine. Over time, it’s been bending itself into the shape of a question mark, and my body refuses to accommodate its insidious contour. As a result, I feel pain, and an overwhelming sense that my spine is trying to free itself from my body. It wants to be someone else’s question mark, someone better suited.
The problem is I was designed to be a semicolon. When we think of semicolons, we think of improper use and bad habits, all of which I exemplify. We semicolons have a bad reputation. Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite writer, said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
A semicolon is used to join two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. While the semicolon implies a causal connection between two seemingly disparate independent clauses, it doesn’t actually provide an explicit or logical reason for the connection. It’s more like a doorway. This kind of door is meant—exclusively—for being situated between two incongruent rooms. Example: one side of the door opens up to a factory floor where workers build wrist watches, and the other side opens to a lecture hall where there’s a public symposium on affordable diabetes treatments. The door marks the divide, but doesn’t explain the logic.
People who have been diagnosed with ADD are semicolons.
I have ADD. A computerized test my doctor administered concluded that I’m “severely impaired.”
According to the Internet, you’re working on a film adaptation of The Adderall Diaries. I’m an experiential expert on ADD and its medical treatment. I keep my consultation fees low too. Just saying.
Back to writing: My earliest memory of wanting to be a writer was in first grade, but I waited 32 years before devoting myself to the art. Up until then, I wrote in therapeutic spurts. All of my psychic snot, which otherwise would’ve been ejected into the atmosphere, materialized on paper. One year, when I was manically depressed, I churned out about twenty short stories and several first-drafts of novel manuscripts. Mind you, none of this happened in an academic environment. The only writers I knew were my soon-to-be wife, and a then-amateur playwright who lived Minnesota. I sent the stories to literary magazines, and amassed over a hundred rejections. Then I thought, “Fuck this.” I gave up. As far as I was concerned, my lot in life was to be a social worker. At that time, I was treatment specialist for a group of men with profound developmental disabilities. I did that for almost nine years.
Eventually, I got back into writing, but my return was largely conditional. Here’s what I’ve discovered: I write, and do the work that writers are supposed to do, when I’m part of a literary community. If I’m not in regular contact with people who are passionate for the written word, who derive pleasure from discussing books, who are thrilled to work with each other, I feel no incentive to carry on.
Thinking back to the time when I said, “Fuck this” and altogether stopped, my social circles consisted of musicians who were disinterested in literature, and health care professionals who didn’t have time to read. I carried out my literary endeavors in isolation; I had no mentors, and no money to pay potential mentors (I wiped drool and changed grown men’s dripping diapers for $9.00 an hour. If you can imagine it, that kind of salary isn’t conducive toward enrolling in an MFA program, or, in your case, several simultaneously). While some might romanticize the creative advantage of being unplugged from (and untainted by) our literary culture’s rules and codes, I’m just not brilliant enough to write a good story without some help. I’ll even make a snobby remark, based on observation: 95% of writers who trash-talk “the system” and consider themselves and their art above it are delusional about the quality of their own writing. The other 5% are geniuses.
In any case, writers are supposed to write for joy in isolation. That’s not my conjecture. Grab any How-to-Write book off the shelf at Barnes and Nobel, preferably the books nearest the one-inch barrier that separates the “Writing Guides” section from the “Self Help” section, and no doubt, the book will tell you that, by God, you better be floating with gratitude and bliss while you’ve been locked in a room writing for the last thirty hours—not eating, not sleeping, ignoring your loved ones, chain smoking, drinking fish-tanks full of coffee, and ripping your hair out—or else, damn it, maybe this isn’t for you.
We believe our own press. We justify our “I am happy about being completely alone and fucking insane” delusion by quoting Wordsworth out of context. We convince ourselves that we’re not experiencing devastating loneliness, but a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. We call to mind images of Ginsberg sitting at his typewriter, so enmeshed in the solitary world of the spirit that the ghost of Blake, drawn to the mystical power of Ginsberg’s passion, materializes before him. We imagine Thoreau at dusk, entranced, meditating on the breeze that tickles Walden Pond’s surface and makes it quiver. He’s so enraptured, so uninhibited by life’s distractions, that a book’s worth of brilliant insights pass through his brain like cheap beer in a frat boy’s full bladder.
Words, words, words! If you approach yourself lovingly and recognize that you’re a divine conduit for the creative spirit that dwells in everyone, a traveler on the journey toward truth, that you’ve been called to translate the language of the soul—for everyone!— then the words will just flow! They’ll fall right into your lap! All you need to do is trust the process, treat yourself non-judgmentally, step out of the way, and let the magic happen.
I don’t write so that I can experience, in dreadful isolation, the magical beauty of words. More often than not, I’m a failed magician; I choose the worst words, and it takes somebody else—a mentor, a peer, an editor, a rhetorical David Copperfield—to find better ones. Nor do I write in order to acquire the propagandistic, misconstrued Wordsworthian sense of transcendence. If that was the point, I’d just skip all this writing shit and chew up a handful of Percodan.
I read and write because it provides me access to a culture of like-mined individuals with like-minded ideals, beliefs, passions, and goals. I read and write because it gives me family. I read and write because I’m just about incapable of being intimate with another person unless I use literature as the connective medium (Interestingly, object-centered sexual fetishes serve the same purpose: they’re mediary agents upon which the subject re-routs his/her attention in order to access “normal” sexual behavior). Fetishes aside, let me give you an example of how I use literature as a bridge to other people’s hearts. Nothing provides me greater joy than those times when my wife and I talk about books. Sometimes we disagree—we might not see eye to eye on Colson Whitehead, or I might be a snob about certain genre fiction writers—but the best and most intimate conversations are the ones in which neither of us know exactly what the fuck we’re talking about. We’re uncertain of our individual thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We experiment with viewpoints. Sometimes, I play the old, conservative New Critic, and she beats me into a bloody pulp with Gender Theory. Sometimes, I say things like, “He’s the whitest poet you’ve ever read to me,” and that gets us going. I don’t necessarily believe what I’m saying; rather, I’m trying on costumes. She does it too. We yap and yap until we’ve arrived at a better understanding of our world, our individual selves, and each other. Now that’s hot.
Sometimes, I’m in no mood to talk about books. Sometimes, especially when I discover a new writer that I admire, she listens to me go on and on. Last year, it was Laura van den Berg and Rick Moody. This year, it’s Lauren Groff.
On a larger scale, books enable me to engage in conversation with other readers and writers. I am, by all accounts, a social reader. And hopefully, what I write not only contributes to the subculture’s aesthetic spirit, but can be used as way for otherwise lonely people to connect and converse. I’d be thrilled to find out that a girlfriend and boyfriend, having read my story in Eleven Eleven,got into an almost-argument about my treatment of gender issues, came to see each other’s points of view, decided to make an effort to be more sensitive to this or that issue as it pertains to gender discrimination in their lives. Better yet, I want to know that my story led to an argument, then an apology, and then the most animalistic sex this couple has ever had.
There you have it. My reading and writing practices are contingent upon community and building relationships. Remove the community, and chances are I’ll stop writing, eventually. Very few people would notice. I’d probably feel horrible and pointless for the rest of my life, but I’ve been there before.
In my next post, we’re going to shift our attention to you. And Ploughshares.
March 2, 2012
Dear James Franco:
I just spent four days at the AWP conference in Chicago. I’ll tell you about it another time. Instead, I’d like to give you an update on my “Meteorite James” story.
If you haven’t read the first blog (please do), I intend to write a story in which I re-imagine the last two years of my life as a graduate student. I want to portray a heightened sense of atmospheric conflict—a kind that has been, until recently, lacking. In my story, you’ll be the source of tension. You’ll be a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati. We’ll be colleagues, equal but not exactly equal.
I haven’t started the story, and I won’t until the conclusion of UC’s winter quarter. Currently, I’m channeling all of my creative energy into a seminar paper about one of your friend’s books. The book is called Tree of Codes. So far, I’ve got about twenty-pages of scholarly criticism written, and another twenty of my own experimental academic-style criticism. I plan on cutting the total length in half. If you run into Amy Hempel or Gordon Lish, could you put in a good word for me? I might need their help.
Also, if you see Jonathan Safran Foer around, tell him that Don likes his book—particularly all the white parts. Tell him I’m not a Foer-hater, either. I admire the way he fucks with shit.
In addition to my work-load, I’ve also been hesitant to start this story because I can’t conceive of a reasonably satisfying ending. I might have found one, though. I want to run it by you, first.
Here’s how this one possible ending came to me. While I was at AWP—specifically, after I’d taken my 36 mg Concerta pill (which is a legal form of amphetamines for people with severe ADD)—I was walking quickly from the Wyndham Hotel to the conference location. I wasn’t walking fast because of the pill; rather, the cold wind came from every direction in rolling swoops and swirls. My hat kept getting blown off, revealing my balding patters. I shoved the hat down on my head as far as it would go, forever altering its shape. We’ll talk about my balding sooner or later. Anyway, I look long strides down Michigan Avenue, with may face tilted down to avoid the gale. A car drove by blasting Miles Davis. Alas, I’d made a connection, and tthere was my ending. I formed the whole thing in my head before I even got to the conference hall’s revolving door. I’m going to spill the beans, right now. Here’s a synopsis of the story’s last section. Tell me what you think.
You’ve been in the Creative Writing program for a year and nine months. One February night, you slam shut the book you’ve been reading for Rd. Roth’s Contemporary American Literature. The novel is called Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. You say “Screw this. I need a night on the town!”
I don’t mean to imply that you find the book unfulfilling, though I do believe that my portrayal of your gesture is accurate. You’ve read this novel six times? Seven? Ten? Gary is your pal; you even directed the book trailer.
You call Janice on your cell phone. She’s part of your harem of undergraduate admirers from the Theater department.
You say, “I’ve been here a year and nine months, and I haven’t done anything fun yet. Let’s go out.”
Your limo arrives. You and five other girls go to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club.
While watching the band play, you think, “Something’s wrong.” Your sensations are heightened: you become aware of all the muscles in your body that you’ve neglected to acknowledge, forever. They’ve been there, you realize, since birth; the ones half-way up your fingers, the tiny twists of cartilage behind your collar bones.
Halfway through the second set, you have an epiphany. You realize that your hypersensitivity is an involuntary, biological response to the bass guitar’s sound. When the bassist plucks his strings, your body seems to vibrate one oscillation short of a tantric orgasm. This has never happened to you before, and it feels fucking great. But let’s not characterize you as hedonist. You’re a critical thinker, and by nature, you must interrogate the mechanics driving this strange, visceral bliss. You conclude that the phenomenon is related to the aging process. You’re getting older, decomposing, and therefore, the gaps between your cells have widened. Your body no longer interacts with—and obstructs—sound the way it once did. You’ve decayed to a point in which your structural pliability, coupled with your overall cellular density, now share resonant frequencies with the bass guitar’s tone. This doesn’t make you sad. It’s difficult to indulge in morbid thoughts when your balls are stimulated. You interpret the whole scenario as a sign.
“Holy fuck!” you think. “I was made for bass guitar.”
Right then and there, you devote your life to the study of jazz bass. You tell the undergraduates—whose genitals are stimulated too, but for different reasons—that they should quit fucking around with older men, and go do their damned homework. Then, you rush out of the club.
You send a text message to UC’s Director of Graduate Studies.
Dr. Jon Donne:
I hereby withdraw from the program.
The next day, your agent informs you that Victor Wooten has agreed to give you a crash-course on bass guitar. Victor asks for $1,000 per hour. You agree. Go Victor!
You return to New York. It’s freezing cold there, unlike Ohio, where, at the end of March, the days become hot and muggy. Wooten’s on his way up from a Caribbean island. You call your agent and say, “When Mr. Wooten arrives, get him a winter jacket and ear muffs.”
A private jet delivers Victor Wooten. Two armed security guards escort him out onto the runway. His wrists are shackled. This is your agent’s fault. She’d misheard your instructions. Instead of asking the travel agency to supply ear muffs, she said, “He will need hand cuffs.” When she said “jacket,” the travel agent mistook the word for “jihadist.”
After Homeland Security detains Victor for nine hours, you apologize profusely. Victor’s a nice guy. He says, “I’m just glad that they didn’t electrocute my nipples.”
You bring him home, and employ him around the clock. You let him sleep in the mop closet, temporarily, until you clean out the guestroom. It’s floor-to-ceiling with books. All first editions, too. You like to be as close to the source as possible.
After three months studying with Victor Wooten, you apply to Julliard, the Berklee School of Music, and the University of North Texas in Denton. You get accepted in each program. You attend all three schools, simultaneously. After two months, you’ve earned three MFAs in Jazz Performance. You publically announce that you are now a jazz musician, and an hour later, you’ve got a record deal with Sony.
Although you’re happy, there’s a sad side to this story. In Lansing, Michigan, there was a bass guitar prodigy named Harvey Harper. A while back, he formed the Harper Brothers Quartet. They worked unrelentingly to build a reputation. They toured out of an old mini-van, with a dented U-Hall trailer hitched to its back. They ate beans and anything labeled “Manager’s Special.” They never had enough money to stay in motels. Sometimes, they slept on people’s floors, but more often than not, they’d huddle in the van, shivering. But they had high hopes, and soon, Sony expressed an interest in the band. An A & R rep, Brenda, said, “Let’s have a chat.” The Harper Brothers Quartet drove to New York. Ten minutes before they signed a contract, Brenda received a phone call. The person on the other line said, “I’m representing James Franco. It’d be in your best financial interest to give the man a record deal.”
After the call, Brenda went back to the lounge, where Harvey and his pals were waiting nervously. Brenda was not holding a contract. “Sorry guys,” she said. “We’ve decided to channel our resources into a more culturally prominent client. We’re going to have to pass on you.”
That night, Harvey Harper quit jazz. He gave his bass to some random Hipster kids who’d walked by with his head down.
Harvey considered a career in literature, but then laughed at the idea. He thought, “I just don’t have the time, energy, money, or connections to work my way up from the bottom again.”
I have no clue what Harvey’s doing right now. I’ve lost touch with my characters.
You’re not to blame, so don’t feel impelled to pout over Harvey’s misfortune. Lord knows how many people I’ve displaced unintentionally. It happens.
Anyway, Sony tries to put together the James Franco Band. They contact their best jazz musicians and say, “We’ve got a gig for you. You want to be in James Franco’s new band?”
The legendary New Orleans’s pianist, Moose Booker, says, “Fuck no.”
East Village scene drummer, Neville Clark , laughs. He says, “This a joke, right? Like when Hemingway wrote poetry?”
Chicago saxophonist Budd Jones says, “James Franco’s looking for a band? You sure this isn’t about scooping up some blackies for Planet of the Apes Part Two? I mean, I’ll do that, but I’m not playing music with that boy.”
Pianist, Cab Lewis, says, “That sounds like a job for Wynton, not me.”
Wynton answers his private line. He says, “You tryin’ to tell me that the son of the Green Goblin is playing jazz now? What, he get tired of being little boy Kerouac? What’s next? Olympic swimmer? Point-guard for the Knicks? The Pope? See, this is what happens whenever my white phone rings. Black phone rings, we talk business. White phone rings, we talk stupid shit. I’ll tell you what. I’ll play in his band under one condition. He’s gotta do a year in the trenches. If Snow White really wants me, then he’s gonna have to prove himself by getting a twelve-month long job directing a high school marching band, and high school jazz band. And not at one them artsy, private, lakefront schools for high net-worth children. And certainly not one of them schools in an ‘up and coming’ neighborhood, either, because that just means the blacks are going down and out. I’m talking about the crack ghetto. If your boy can do a year in the hood, then you don’t even have to pay me to jam with him. I’ll do it out of the kindness of my heart.”
Request denied for “logistical reasons.”
You wait for days as Sony goes through their A-list of musicians, their B-list, their C-list, and finally, the D-list, which consists of an 85 year old arthritic saxophonists, a drummer who can’t play for more than three minutes at a time because it upsets his overactive bowels (prior to his complications, he went by the name Kenny Wild-Sticks Wilson. Now, unofficially, it’s Kenny Shits-On-Stage Wilson), and a racist trumpet player who has a history of abducting old Jewish women and throwing them into random, suburban backyard pools (His belief is that the World-Controlling Zionists have infiltrated the media and prevented the jazz-consciousness revolution) . Yet, even these leftovers and misfits couldn’t be persuaded to join your band.
Upset that nobody is talking you seriously, you create an E-list consisting of New School students. Seventy white boys and girls show up for auditions. You whittle in down to three.
Your band manager, Chip Jackson, organizes a tour. He wants you to warm up to the jazz scene, rather than jumping right in, so he bills the James Franco Quartet as an opening act for the Sammy “Shook” Williams Band.
You discover that jazz musicians are wholly unlike the self-conscious, aspiring writers in MFA programs. They refuse to act indifferently toward you. Whereas many aspiring writers, when broached by the topic of James Franco, will sigh or growl (then walk away stiffly), jazz musicians display no such emotional control. The disparity becomes apparent when you finally get to meet Shook Williams. You’d been looking forward to this moment since professor Gullet played Shook’s “Groove Stick” jam in Appreciating Modern Meta-Jazz class. Backstage, you say to Shook, “Man, I’ve had your Ellington Gone Whiskey cut stored in my iPod for over a year. You don’t know what a pleasure it is to meet you!”
Shook tilts his head. “You that Planet-of-the-Apes mother fucker?”
“Thought so. I heard your studio sessions. Ya’ll sound like an office full of people banging on old typewriters. You come back to me when you’ve found the bounce. Until then, this is my side of the stage.”
You walk away in shame. “What’s the bounce?” you wonder.
He says one last thing: “And keep your hands off the girls, too. They’re mine.”
During the first three shows, you get booed off the stage. Footage goes all over Youtube.
On the forth night, after your sound check, the famous drummer Weatherman Rivers and a much younger, unidentified man approach you at the bar.
“Weatherman!” you say.
He snarls. “And whether or not you continue this tour is what you and I are going to talk about. See here—” Weatherman puts his arm around the younger man’s shoulders, “This is Bobby Jamel. He’s been playing bass since he was smaller than your pecker. And if you and he were playing on stage together, everyone watching will think, ‘Jamel’s got a much, much, bigger pecker.’ He’s been on the circuit for ten years, with the Lester Haynes Band. And last month, they scored a gig sharing the bill with Shook’s boys. Biggest breakthrough in their lives. But two days before packing the gear, he gets a call. Tour manager says, ‘You’re out, Franco’s in.’ Now how you going to look my boy in the eye and tell him that you deserve his dream?”
Here’s where I’ve set myself up. I don’t know how you’d respond.
Does James Franco tell Bobby Jamel, “It’s a dog eat dog world,” or does show compassion and humility? Does he cry? Does he rush backstage and tell backup band of white hipsters that the tour’s over? Or does he become determined to prove himself, to find that “bounce”—whatever the hell it is—that Shook mentioned?
All I know is this: someone—maybe you—cancels the tour. You’re not throwing in the towel, though. If I know one thing about you, it’s that James Franco never backs down. Sony, quick to respond to the disgrace, calls a Hollywood studio and says, “We have to save James’s reputation! Quick, we need a film about jazz!”
A few days later, you sign an agreement to play the role of Miles Davis in a film called Miles. Your makeup artists, and everyone else involved, will insist on painting you black. You’ll have some problems with that.
I don’t have it in my heart to end this story with you wearing blackface. That’s taking this much too far. A more finely wrapped ending would show you resuming your literary career.
Here’s a question that might haunt you for the rest of your life, unless I intervene: “What did Shook mean by ‘the bounce,’ and how do I obtain it?”
Bounce is a particular rhythmic feel. It takes years, maybe even decades, to develop. The notes bounce. Not just swing, but bounce.
I have some good news for you, though. You’d found the bounce a long time ago, when you played Ginsberg in the film Howl. Listen to yourself when you recite the poem. Listen to your rhythm. It bounces. It swings.
It’s jazz. Just listen to it.