Thirteen years ago, on one of those crisp and beautiful autumn days before all weather was the end of the world, Lucy Liu walked into a bagel shop on 6th Avenue. I was seated at a table inside. I was there with fellow graduate students, but it was early in our first semester, and we were strangers. When Lucy Liu walked in, I whispered, “Lucy Liu,” but no one at my table cared. My curiosity, my star-struck reaction, embarrassed them.
Whatever the others felt, it didn’t matter to me. I watched Lucy Liu pay. She placed her change in her pocket and a dollar bill fell to the floor. Just as quickly, she walked out the door. At first, I waited to see if anyone else had noticed. I didn’t want to be the guy who ran down 6th Avenue, shouting, “Hey! Lucy Liu!” But I was the only person who’d seen. I excused myself from the table, picked up the dollar, and followed her. As it turned out, I didn’t have to run. She was at the edge of the sidewalk, petting a golden retriever. The scene didn’t make any sense. It was ridiculous. The dog wagged its tail and was thrilled. The dog’s owner, an elderly man, was also thrilled. So was the woman in the gray suit standing near the mailbox. Everyone smiled, everyone was thrilled—until they saw me.
The dog, the man, the woman: they each suspected I was about to ruin the moment. Lucy Liu had her back to me. “Hello?” I said. No response. “Excuse me?” I tried again. This time, she stood up and looked at me. A certain kind of fool, I stood there in quiet awe. She waited. She stared. “Yes?” Lucy Liu asked, clearly irritated. “Sorry,” I said, and offered the dollar. “You dropped this.” All at once, her irritation was gone. In its place, she bestowed a gift upon me, which was her smile. “Thank you,” she said, and beamed, not only with her teeth, but with her eyes, and posture, and with her whole movie star being. It was wonderful. Lucy Liu took her dollar. The dog barked in happy approval. The old man and the woman by the mailbox gave me laudatory nods. “You’re welcome,” I said. “Have a nice day.” I was broke, loveless, and miserable, and yet I walked back into that bagel shop animated with joy. Two steps from my table, I realized what had just happened—Lucy Liu! —and my knees gave out.
Chances are, if you live in a metropolitan area, or know someone who does, you have a similar story—a story involving an actor—except in your story the actor is way more famous. This is to be expected. Telling a story about an actor is like having a talent, in that there’s invariably someone out there who can do better.
Good friends of mine are good friends with movie stars; acquaintances have dated them; ex-lovers have snorted their drugs. My wife (who doesn’t care about film industry people or the famous at all) once spent a very pleasant weekend with Tilda Swinton at her house. Which is to say, we’ve all got stories. We trade them. This is fine. Compared to what the internet does, my Lucy Liu story is harmless and hurts no one. At the same time, these stories, like social media gossip, do actors a disservice.
Actors, unlike other types of famous people, actually do something. It’s called act. Celebrity websites make us forget how some of these people we love to idolize (and later tear apart limb from limb) have real talent. Through their performances, actors allow an audience to feel emotions they might have forgotten they were capable of feeling, or, more incredibly, that they’ve never before felt. This instilling of emotion, this rousing, is also one of the jobs of the fiction writer.
Fiction writers do far more (we’re the sound-guy, the director, we make the coffee, build the set, etc.), but actors are our closest artistic kin. The fiction writer’s sentences are the actor’s gestures and patterns of speech. We each create characters that seem to experience emotion. Without those emotions, all the rest of it—the ideas, the plot, the truth—would cease to matter.
My first novel, Molly Bit, is about a famous actress, which I am not. I suppose I could have written a novel based on my own life, but for reasons that involve a $30 co-pay, I set out to write a novel that had absolutely nothing to do with me. It turned out this approach was impossible, and thank God. To make such a thing, to invent an imaginary body of knowledge and emotions entirely outside of oneself, would be madness. The great acting teacher, the creator of the Method, Konstantin Stanislavski, understood this, but it took me years to understand him. When I finally did, I discovered that my initial, wrongheaded intention was a benefit. Because I was writing about an actor, what I had foolishly asked myself to do—get rid of myself—brought me closer to what the actor does, which is grapple with and embrace the overlapping similarities between their identity and the character they’re portraying, and to do so in such a way that the new form they assume belongs to them as well as to the fiction.
All writers are everything we write. Once the computers learn to think for themselves, we won’t have to worry about anything, but, until then, the question of how we go about being all sorts of different characters will motivate essays like this one, as well as more casual mansplanations, and various monologues delivered by strident young people. Why we write what we write, and who should write from the perspective of who, are different, but as important questions.
Most recently, these questions were asked by Alexander Chee, whose essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel rejects the tired old dictums of novel craft in favor of truer, weirder aphorisms, like, “You have invented this self because the ways you are human are not always visible to yourself. All of this is a machine to make yourself more human.” In spite of its title, Chee’s collection is anything but a how-to, or, if it is, it’s one that runs the risk of psycho-therapeutic-transcendence. And good on him. Writing a novel, like being a person, is a crisis of identity.
“You know what Freud says about dreams?” Ben Lerner said in a recent BBC interview. “[I]n the dream, you’re everyone? [I]n this novel, I’m everyone.” In the second half of the same radio program, the poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy asks, “Can you even ever escape autobiography?” Lerner and Kandasamy have written autofiction novels, and they speak with brilliance on the ontological complications, need for empathy, and (in the case of Kandasamy, especially) courage that writing this type of novel may require. Chee’s investigations into the nature of himself and anyone having a self are just as wide-ranging. To be, for a moment, stupidly optimistic about this time of ours, with its rage, separateness, and denial, it could also be true to say our pains are related to growth, or to a more complicated understanding of one another and the various realities and histories that inform our distinct and yet shared lives.
In “Girl,” Chee takes the act of performance head-on; it is an essay on drag, queerness, mixed-race identity, and how fun the Castro was as late as 1990, but it’s also about how pretending to be someone other than who you are is both natural and never without complicated, even sinister revelations. In one section, Chee, dressed as a blonde woman, walks down the street with his boyfriend on Halloween and thinks, “There is nothing brave in this… I want him to be my quiet, strong man. I want to hold his hand all night long and have it only be that; not political, not dangerous, just that. I want the ancient reassurances legislated for by centuries by mobs.” The act by itself might not be brave, but the admission the act results in is. The moment is at once sympathetic, self-indicting, a condemnation of white supremacy, a piece of historical analysis, and a sexy little show. In the dream of being the “girl,” Alexander Chee, the novelist, is also everyone else.Writers in publishing can complain with the best of them—about best-of-lists, Amazon, nearly everything—but we don’t know Hollywood rejection.
To write Molly Bit, I took a slightly different approach. I read memoirs, novels, and various books on acting. I watched countless documentaries. But the most important thing I did was take an acting class. At the time, I lived very far from Hollywood, in Northampton, Massachusetts. The professional theater company that hosted the class was on campus. It was a community class. Not one of my fellow students (eight adults, of all ages) had signed up to make it big—although a few of them harbored dreams of local commercials.
One night a week for twelve weeks we met in a black box theater deep underground. I had taken one other acting class, back in college, and so the vulnerability of that space wasn’t alien: I was merely older. As such, I didn’t look for answers. I had no expectations. I was there to be there. For the first three weeks, I rolled on my back, and swung my arms. I stood on opposite sides of invisible walls. I pushed energy in and out. I collected and gave. This early work was pre-language, which is where all language comes from, that terrorized place without an alphabet, where there’s only desire and fear, a pure art of the body, closest to the source.
Every Wednesday night, I felt unchecked. Prose, with its hard-stop-periods, commas to fence-in clauses, and invented symbols, is a rigid style of communication. The body too has limits (we all die, for instance). But feelings are lawless. They are susceptible to all available energies. In the acting class, when spoken-language was finally introduced (“Take this.” “Give me that”; games of repetition, and later small scenes) words took on the shapes and intonations of pure sound and were separate from those more standard evaluations of success or failure. In short, it was super fun.
It reminded me of the early days of writing (I mean way back, school age), when the sentence was a wild horse to run after, not lonely, but free, before that time when one thinks, “But I want the horse to go the other way… and for god sake, it needs to say something!” Writers, actors: at our very base level we are trying to express an energy of thought, feeling, or idea that would, by some miracle, exist on its own anyway. The proof of this is in the nature of this very sentence, how I’m looking for and typing toward a thing I already know, and yet need to discover. But what exactly has been written? As in acting, there is a style and an energy at work, a control freely given (“Come here, Trigger—over here”), and that, as much as the meaning, is what matters.
To be honest, I’ve never been near a horse, but I have observed an acting class down in the Valley. My friend Jen is an actor, writer, director, and producer. One March evening several years ago, I met Jen at her house in Laurel Canyon. I’d been in town for four or five days already. During the week, I’d explored the Warner Brothers backlot, eavesdropped on countless people in bars and coffee shops, conducted “interviews” with friends, and otherwise driven around the city, having revelations. I’d been reading, remembering, and writing about LA for so long that coming back to it was like stepping into my own mind.
Everything I observed was a note.
LA:… franklin avenue and beechwood canyon above and the slow ascent of money; the wolf’s den French (?) style architecture (sex room under turret); the smell of honeysuckle and perfume in the tight passes between buildings; photo of a dead screenwriter/comedian in the window of UCB across the street from the Scientology Celebrity Center…
Jen and I drove down the backside of the Hollywood Hills into the Valley. She has lived in LA since 2004. You’ve seen her on television shows and in movies. At some point in the near future, you will pay cold hard cash for what she’s written, directed, and produced. We ate dinner at a fast-food place that only served salads, gossiped, and then we went to her acting class.
LA is an easy place to ridicule, to bemoan, but some of the best and most decent people I know live there. This is due in part to the monstrousness and terror the place inspires in those who call it home. The rejection is constant and harrowing. Fear slips into cruelty. The powerful and powerless go mad. It’s always on fire. No other place (not even New York) tells as many stories. In many ways, it’s all anyone in LA ever does. Alone. With friends. Over lunch. On set. The stories never end.
And because stories, no matter the medium or the teller, are always lies, truths get distorted. Writers in publishing can complain with the best of them—about best-of-lists, Amazon, nearly everything—but we don’t know Hollywood rejection. “I take ‘no’ like a piece of candy,” a screenwriter friend once said to me. He went on: “Screenwriting is ‘no,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘no’—but acting is ten times worse.” To survive all of this, to live without rage or bitterness, takes resilience, honesty, and a personal integrity LA isn’t exactly known for. But from what I’ve seen, those traits are to be found everywhere.The actors in Jen’s class did what writers do, and yet often don’t speak of: they became someone other than who they were, a character, the other them.
The small theater was on the second floor of a two-story mini-mall off Ventura. It was Jen’s off-night, and after she introduced me to her teacher, a woman with a high-density power emanating from her solar plexus, we sat in the very back row. What I saw, almost word for word, became the start of chapter two in Molly Bit. More than straight reportage, the feeling and atmosphere of the class informed my writing. I’m sure the clichés of the actor are as true as the clichés of the writer.
The first is “theatrical” and always “on.” The other is what? — “miserable”? “Adjunct lecturer”? The long and short of it is, we’re both nuts. Stereotypes aside, what I witnessed in that theater was an immensity of kindness. In fact, the class was a refuge, a place for actors to be real in a town that doesn’t treat them as such. The pre-class conversations were about character research, child care, love, choices, money, failure. When I watched the students go on stage and perform, the results were startling. Nothing was ever quite good enough for them. There was always another layer to go down into, a truer moment to find. The actors were revising their sentences up on stage. They were encouraged to speak of the personal, emotional work that fiction writers tend to avoid speaking of. What do writers really say about what we do? That the work is lonely? That we went a little crazy today? O.K. But why? A discursive wasteland lies between “That book was pretty good” and literary criticism.
It might be true that fiction writers are more than a little ashamed of our work, ashamed of how our novels and stories are created out “of the torn-up parts” of ourselves, as Robert Walser wrote. This could be true—or it could be true that only I am ashamed. In any case, the actors in Jen’s class did what writers do, and yet often don’t speak of: they became someone other than who they were, a character, the other them.
Hollywood is illusion. We know this. It is a place, and a state of mind, dedicated to the production of make-believe. So much of what is made there is awful. Some of it is astonishing. The sliding scale of what counts as either art or entertainment changes from person to person, from retweet to subtweet, from deeply held moral position to nobody cares. Soon #oscars will be trending. I’ll be watching the telecast over at my friend Jonathan’s house. The ceremony is often retrograde, offensive, elitist, embarrassing, and frequently boring. Yes, of course. But it’s also fantastic. I love it. This year, I’ll be thinking of Alexander Chee. I will hold all of the wonderful, horrifying, beautiful, insidious contradictions in my head. For me, beyond the celebrity, that’s who these actors are, or who, at their very best, they try to be. They are like the fiction writers. They are the liars who tell our stories.
Molly Bit by Dan Bevacqua is out now via Simon & Schuster.