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Books I Wish I Wrote: On Writerly Jealousy

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I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”

Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.

I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.

When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”

He’s wrong, though. I do.

My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.

As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?

The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”

Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.

Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?

In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”

But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?

When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.

So how to deal with our unthinkable jealousies? What to do with my frustration that I’ll never be able to claim The Empathy Exams or Bad Feminist or Bluets as my own?

Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”

Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”

For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”

It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.

Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Living Clichéd Lives: On Hollywood Biopics

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Don Cheadle directs, co-writes, and stars in Miles Ahead, a new movie that strives admirably to slip the frayed straitjacket of the musician biopic genre. You know the drill. Person discovers he or she is blessed with an unusual musical gift, starts small, eventually rockets to stardom, learns it’s lonely at the top and turns to drink and/or drugs, suffers breakups and breakdowns, gets groove back, and then either (a) dies broke and alone, or (b) enjoys a career rebirth and lives happily ever after.

The (a) sub-category is by far the less populous, probably because movie executives believe audiences have no stomach for dark endings. To understand how wrong they are, consider 1984’s Amadeus, which won eight Oscars and was a box-office smash even though it ended with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) getting tossed into an unmarked mass grave for paupers. The life and the music, not the death, turn out to be the things that matter.

Don Cheadle yearns to enter the (a) sub-category with Miles Ahead. He does this through an ingeniously counter-intuitive artistic choice: he frames the story in the late-1970s, when one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time was not making music. To sweeten the conceit, Cheadle’s Miles Davis is not suffering from a conventional creative block, an artist powerless to express the things boiling inside him. With a scowl, he offers this refreshing explanation for his silence: “I didn’t have nothin’ to say.”

That explanation is delivered to a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor, who bangs on Davis’s locked door one day hoping to get an exclusive story about the great man’s silence and self-imposed exile. This insertion of a brand-name white actor smells of a studio decision to tone down the movie’s blackness in the interest of selling tickets. At the Berlin Film Festival, Cheadle acknowledged that “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative.” When the remark caused an uproar, Cheadle added, “No one said specifically, ‘You must hire this one actor to make this happen.’ But there was a kind of list of actors that would make the money go.”

McGregor does his best to turn this into a lopsided buddy movie, and he nearly succeeds. An uneasy bond grows between the ambitious journalist and the cynical musician, given a boost when the former helps the latter score some high-grade cocaine in a Columbia University dorm room, the movie’s funniest scene. To Cheadle’s credit, his Miles is no god; he may be a genius, but he’s also a chauvinist, a womanizer, a coke head, and nasty to go with it. Among the revelations Brill pulls out of Miles is that his heart is with the “innovators,” who he pointedly identifies as Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky — not Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk.

Miles, we come to find out, has not been totally silent. He has recorded a tape that he refuses to turn over to his record label, and much of the movie is taken up with the maniacal protection, theft, and recovery of this MacGuffin. It would be a spoiler to reveal what’s on this coveted spool of tape, but it’s no spoiler to say that the movie’s incessant cutting between the 1950s and the ’70s gets disorienting. Or that the movie’s soundtrack — consisting of re-imaginings of Miles’s music — will make you appreciate just how great Miles’s early recordings will always be.

In the end, Cheadle succumbs to the rebirth cliché. Without any valid explanation, Davis is back onstage with a new band, his creative block vanquished, playing the funk- and rock-fuelled fusion that sounds, a bit anachronistically, like Bitches Brew from 1970. It may have been the only way for Cheadle to go, but it feels like a capitulation, a tacked-on triumphal ending designed to please those studio executives who insisted the movie needed a white star if it was going to succeed at the box office. They’re the same kind of studio suits who decided to cast the fair-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina, then tricked her out with a prosthetic nose and blackface. Weren’t there any black actresses qualified to play an incendiary black artist?

As usual, the studio suits got it wrong. Miles Ahead, for all its lofty intentions, wound up in safe sub-category (b), where it so far has failed to connect with audiences.

The title I Saw the Light says everything you need to know about the new Hank Williams biopic. It says that this treatment of one of country music’s most gifted and tortured performers will favor the sunshine over the shadows, the uplift over the appalling undertow of a life that ended at the age of 29, booze-soaked and pill-addled, alone in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to yet another gig.

I would argue that Hank Williams was country music’s only existentialist, a genius who was able to mold the everyday worlds of rural poverty and honky-tonk revelry into a vision that life offers neither meaning nor any chance of escape, only a promise of fleeting, bawdy, delirious respites — always followed by more loneliness and pain and drudgery. He painted this vivid portrait with the simplest of tools: the whippoorwill, the distant freight train, the cotton field, the dancing spree, as in:
We’ll do all the law’s allowin’, tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’, settin’ the woods on fire…
The English actor Tom Hiddleston works hard to animate lanky, jaunty, haunted Hank Williams, even singing the signature songs, but his earnest renderings sound thin and watery compared to Williams’s soulful yearning. The movie looks terrific but it sounds like cover-song karaoke.

The tone of this two-hour slog is set during the very first frames — a long shot of Williams seated on a stool in a hot spotlight, singing “Cold, Cold Heart” as the camera circles pointlessly around him. It’s meant to be atmospheric, a portrait of a man alone in a crowded room, but it’s just dull. What follows has all the narrative momentum of a mail train, a series of stops and starts as we watch Williams tear through a string of wives while drinking, womanizing, doing uppers and coke and eventually morphine for a painful case of spina bifida. When he gets to the top, he pines predictably for the good old days as an up-and-comer: “Sometimes I wish I was back at WSFA making $12 a week and knowing who my friends were.” And here’s Hank in what passes for a retrospective moment about his love life: “I’m a pro at making a mess of things.”

The screenplay, by director Marc Abraham, is based on Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen. But the movie gives us no sense of Williams’s origins or the sources of his inspiration, from country radio broadcasts to gospel music to Rufus Payne, the black bluesman who taught him to play the guitar. Given the facts of Williams’s early death, Abraham had little choice but to make this a sub-category (a) movie. Even Hollywood can’t dress up a 29-year-old corpse in the back seat of a Cadillac.

Some musician biopics are saved by the music. Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Doors come to mind, with Sissy Spacek and Val Kilmer doing their own singing while inhabiting the souls of Loretta Lynn and Jim Morrison. But I Saw the Light is not in that class.

Neither is Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of the gorgeous, doomed jazz trumpeter and junkie Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, with music by the jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and some pleasingly breathless singing by Hawke, this movie, like Miles Ahead, at least tries to break out of the genre’s straitjacket.

It does this primarily by refusing to condemn Baker’s heroin addiction. “It makes me happy,” he says unapologetically. “I love to get high.” When he’s high, he adds, “the notes get wider, not just longer, and I can get inside of every note.”

The movie jumps around in time, and back and forth between color and black-and-white. One moment we’re on the set of a 1960s black-and-white film biography of Baker — a biopic within a biopic! — then we’re at Birdland in the ’50s, then we’re in L.A. in the ’60s. Budreau manages to keep things flowing by turning the movie into a story of dual recoveries: after a vicious beating by drug dealers who knock out his front teeth, Baker must re-learn to play his instrument with painful dentures that keep slipping; and with his soul mate, an aspiring actress named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), he must try to overcome his inner demons and his craving for heroin.

He nearly succeeds — until the night of his comeback performance at Birdland. High as a Georgia pine, Baker knocks the house out cold, including a skeptical Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and a supportive Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). The movie ends with a written coda, informing us that Baker went off to Europe after the Birdland gig, where he continued to shoot heroin and made some of his best music. (We’re not told that Baker fell out of a window in an Amsterdam hotel in 1988 and died at the age of 59, his veins humming with heroin and cocaine.) In the world of the musician biopic, this passes for a brave, non-judgmental and unconventional ending.

As I watched these movies, it began to occur to me that maybe the problem is not that people keep making clichéd movies about musicians; maybe the problem is that musicians keep living clichéd lives that can’t be made into anything but clichéd movies. Prince just died of an apparent opioid painkiller overdose at the age of 57. Arguably, the only people who lead more clichéd lives than musicians are writers, who discover early on that it’s lonely at the bottom, it’s worse in the mid-list, and, for the precious few who make it there, it’s even worse at the top. But with musicians, at least there’s music to leaven the loneliness and add some sizzle to the clichés. Which is why these biopics will keep getting made as long as the sun continues to cross the sky.

The inevitability of this struck me when I got word that a Mötley Crüe biopic, in the works for years, is finally going to be released this summer. It’s called The Dirt, which was the title of the band’s salacious 2001 memoir. If the source material is any indication, the movie will be a non-stop mudbath of depravity. But the true depravity here is that men who are eligible for Social Security continue to wear Spandex while mounting a “retirement tour.”

Then I stumbled on some YouTube videos of Guns N’ Roses performing at the recent Coachella Festival. There on the stage, ensconced on a throne with his damaged left foot in a cast, sat a bloated Axl Rose, the original bad boy straight outta Central Nowhere, Indiana. This was not the priapic flame-haired dervish lionized by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” from his collection Pulphead. The Axl Rose at Coachella was a caricature of his younger self, immobilized and squalling, a fat Elvis for the new millennium.

Surely a biopic is in the works. Based on that Coachella show, there’s no way it will have a happy ending.

Surprise Me!