|Art by Gary Tharler|
A writer’s injuries are his strengths.
As you can imagine, being the author of thehighly successful and not quite universally acclaimed memoir Pertinent Minkbite, I can’t walk into my local Mayfair without some earnest citizen tapping me on the shoulder, surreptitiously taking in the contents of my basket — Why all the Depends? That’s my little secret, fella — and asking, in a modest but vaguely resentful tone, “Say, Mister Stale, you destroyed your self-respect, hurt your loved ones, blew a career out of the water, baked your liver into a throbbing blintz packed with every two-bit, bunk narcotic known to man, and managed to turn the whole sorry-ass fiasco into a cash cow by banging out a book about it — so hey, I’m as pathetic as you are, how can I convert MY shitty life into big-time lit-bucks?”
At this point, of course, yours truly has a number of options. I can —
A. Maintain that I only resemble the aforementioned “author,” pointing out that the whole “Jew-thug” look is not restricted to the ranks of tell-all, my-tracks-are-bigger-than-your-tracks autobiographers, while angrily insisting that I’m actually an up-and-coming paralegal with the firm of Barium, Bornstein, Binge and Purge.
B. Join my ambitious new acquaintance for a nice cup of herbal tea and spend three or four misty-eyed hours listening to how he drove his wife’s Nissan into a utility pole after putting the mortgage up his nose one crazy Saturday with a vicious minx he scooped up at the corner of Curson and Sunset who turned out to be named “Howie.”
C. Procure my supplicant’s name, address and phone number, promise to get in touch, and — guilty as charged! — stuff it in the nearest receptacle as soon as he disappears up the houseware aisle.
But I’m kidding, of course. Gratitude is my middle name. I love the little people. And the truth is, it’s time for Jerry to give something back. And so, by way of dispensing a sort of free, Reader’s Digest–condensed version of the actual instructional volume, Market Your Inner Loser: Jerry Stahl’s 10-Step Guide to Going to Hell for Fun and Profit, soon to be gracing self-help shelves at monster book-and-cappuccino chains near you, I’ve agreed to let my good friends at L.A. Weekly publish a trio of tips to help the interested reader get started on the road to turning his or her fucked-up, destructive yesterday into an exciting, profitable and only marginally fucked-up tomorrow.
STEP ONE:BE THE BIGGEST LOSER YOU CAN BE!
Not to diminish anyone’s personal trauma — it’s fucking horrible, and whoever hurt you should be hung by their thumbs, doused in Karo and fed to fire ants — but the fact is, the pain market’s been glutted. Incest is over. Addiction’s old news. Satanic possession won’t get a return call from Montel’s valet. So get creative! Think white slavery. Think “Mommy dated Manson.” (You’ve been hurt, damnit! You can’t be expected to get every little detail right.) The rule here: Embellish, embellish, embellish! What are they gonna do? Put you in memoir jail? Relax!
Your mom beat you with salad tongs? Make it a lead pipe! Your stepdad had less concept of boundaries than Hitler invading Poland? Sorry, we’ve already heard that story. Remember, this is America, where one-downsmanship is a national sport. Everybody’s been abused, and if they haven’t, those recovered memories are just around the corner. Sure, it sounds callous. But don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve got as much DFC (Dysfunctional Family Cred) as the next guy. My mom used to chase me around the house with an enema the size of a turkey baster — and that’s when I was being a good boy!
STEP TWO:IT’S YOUR LIFE, SO PUT SOME CELEBRITIES IN IT
People destroy their lives all the time. But, sad to say, when it comes to the grim business of shopping said destruction and expecting to get paid for it, folks are going to want names.
Okay. Let’s say your story takes place in the less than glamorous, not very erotically charged world of professional dry cleaning. Much as you’ve suffered, you may say to yourself, “What chance do I have of foisting my personal hell on Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch?” Happily, there is a solution. Did you say dry cleaning? Fine. How ’bout the time you were so loaded on those 10 Fentanyl patches stuck to your neck, you fried a dozen Armani blazers, reeled out from behind the counter and passed out on Brian Dennehy’s lap in the frozen-yogurt shop next door? Oh sure, maybe it didn’t exactly happen that way. Maybe it wasn’t even Brian Dennehy. But, jeezy-peezy, in the grips of a monstro synthetic-morphine buzz, who’s going to expect 100 percent accurate lap-identification? If it wasn’t Dennehy, maybe it was Mariah Carey, or Bob De Niro. How ’bout Zak Hanson? He likes yogurt. Readers — and more important, publishers — understand. They know what you’ve been through. They’re on your team.
So, again, relax. You want to march out that gripping saga of your “dark years” as a claims adjuster for Aetna Life & Casualty? Start typin’, amigo! Just make sure, when you’re prancing through the A story about those stolen hours sharing amphetamine suppositories and consensual sex with a certain one-legged systems analyst in the exec washroom, you toss in a B about the time you found yourself, in the grips of a five-day generic-gin binge, caressing Neve Campbell’s dented bumper for an hour and a half before the Fire Department had to show up with the Jaws of Life and pluck your tongue out of her exhaust pipe.
In Pertinent Minkbite, for the record, I managed to work in David Lynch, Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Jack Klugman, Nirvana and, if memory serves, the pope, each of whom, while hugely peripheral to the drama at hand, lent invaluable “celeb cachet” when snagging a contract. To sum up: Whatever your line of nightmare, find a way to work in some famous people, and you’re home free.
But, speaking of celebrities, allow me to get personal for a moment. Many fans have asked if I’m going to write about my much-rumored, short-lived liaison with Monica Lewinsky now that the trial’s over and Ms. L herself is set to pump out a tell-all with the late Princess Di’s biographer. (“Mons,” as I used to call her, was a frolicsome 15, with baby fat in her cheeks and a heart as big as all outdoors; I was an after-school math tutor, working with “problem teens” as part of a community-service deal worked out with the court and my P.O. after a minor possession beef. The whole crazy thing was over in a month.)
The answer — and this may surprise those who view your author as some amoral, bottom-feeding fame-whore, ready to trample infants and old ladies in hopes of scraping a dime out of his own tainted history — is a firm, unwavering NO. What I had with Monica —if I had anything, and I’m not saying I did — was a beautiful, special, once-in-a-lifetime and, frankly, highly illegal relationship with a minor. So, alas, the love we may or may not have shared shall remain unchronicled. For now. Roman Polanski’s got an extra little room at his place in the south of France, and, well, let’s just see what the top garçon at Editions Paris has to say about my latest outline . . .
STEP THREE:BIG-SCREEN DEGRADATION, MAKING YOUR LIFE, THE MOVIE
My advice? Get someone else to write the screenplay. Why? That’s easy. When people tell you the thing’s brilliant, you can take all the credit. (“What can I say? I just happened to lead a fascinating life.”) Likewise, when folks shun you for consenting to such a despicable spectacle, you’ve got total deniability. (“Hey, I only lived it, baby, I didn’t write the script.”)
Either way, everybody knows Holly wood changes everything. In my case, for a couple of tense minutes, one interested indie outfit actually wanted to film my book, but give the lead to Rosie Perez. The idea was to make “me” a talented-but-troubled Latina who climbs the Hollywood ladder, then turns to drugs when, after winning her third Emmy, she joins group therapy and realizes she’s actually a tiny Jew from Pennsylvania. You figure it out!
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to say a word or two about the film that really did get made. In the final cut of my life, much of the action centered on my massive involvement with a celebrated sitcom puppet whose rise to prominence in the late ’80s is well documented. As a dramatic device, this was terrific, and provided a zany backdrop for the character’s decline and fall. In truth, however, writing puppet jokes was but a pit stop on the smack-addled path to full-bore collapse.
The real story, of scant interest to the target demographic, was somewhat less glamorous. (If glamour is a word you can associate with ALF.) After being more or less thrown out of the TV business (where I wasn’t that successful to begin with), I ended up downtown, clambering around Eighth and Alvarado on my hands and knees, cadging junk money selling soap chips to sweaterheads from USC who wanted to “try some of that crack stuff” and thought they could trust a white guy.
In short, tell your truth as it happened. But remember, once Mister Movie Producer starts sniffing your pant leg, all bets are off. If you’re lucky, they’ll hire great actors, and it’ll all work out.
And there you are. This may notbe enough to get you in the window at Barnes & Noble, but it’s a start. The point is, shame pays. If you’ve led an admirable life, hurry up and fuck it up so you have some material. If you’re already an asshole, what are you waiting for?
Jerry Stahl is the author of the memoirPermanent Midnight. His new novel, Perv — A Love Story, will be published in the fall.