“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.” Hunter S. Thompson
There’s something redemptive about writing. Our stories about lost loves, creeps, power walking on acid all show we want to be redeemed in one way or another—even if we’re talking nonsense. Powerwalking on acid is nonsense, by the way.
I know because I’ve powerwalked on acid. Every car looked like a dinosaur with an enormous amount of chrome whizzing by. See enough raptors with Honda taillights and you run. Maybe reality won’t destroy you, but those dinosaurs will.
I’ve written for everybody. I was an advertising copywriter for forty years. I was a scam artist getting legitimate pay. I don’t feel bad. Most of my clients were in the same boat. We told so many fabricated truths, we won awards. Check through any advertising award show annual. It’s full of porkies.
One day I got tired of writing other people’s nonsense. I wanted to really write, so I did what every aspiring author does. I copied others. I tried being Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. I lifted, stole, re-assembled and blatantly misappropriated at a rate some would call perverse. I like to think this was my training.
Hemingway once said, “Always try something that’s never been done.” Well, I found out that’s been done.
It didn’t work, of course. Hemingway once said, “Always try something that’s never been done.” Well, I found out that’s been done. I also found out Hemingway lied all the time. His books are mostly lies. In some respects, I found a brother in arms. I’d been telling advertising porkies for years and he’d been telling literary porkies. I put more sell in my headlines than he did.
Writing is God’s way of showing us we can’t tell the truth. If we could, we’d never commit anything to the page. Fiction is the highest form of fibbing. Actually, science fiction is. People who write science fiction have no sense of reality whatsoever. That’s a good thing if you’re already a liar.
To be a writer you have to give up truth. You should give up friends as well, since all they do is take up your time, but start with truth. It’s simply not in us to stick to facts. We need fabrication in our lives. Call it fantasy or nonsense, it’s the same thing. Lewis Carroll was about as nonsensical as you can get.
One of my biggest mistakes was wanting to write something sincere. That’s the death of any writer. The minute you try that, you’re a phony. Some writers seem to pull it off. They sound wise. Gore Vidal did a pretty good job of it, but he was the biggest phony going. The only guy who made his writing sound truly sincere was Jimmy Breslin.
He swore he’d never work anywhere that didn’t allow cigarette butts on the floor.
“When you stop drinking,” he wrote, “you have to deal with the marvelous personality that started you drinking in the first place.” He swore he’d never work anywhere that didn’t allow cigarette butts on the floor. He quit journalism when the smoking bylaws came into effect. You can’t fight the system. At the same time, why give up enjoying yourself?
Hunter S. Thompson said, “You can’t write looking over your shoulder.” Well, you can, but then you’re not writing, you’re looking for acceptance. Breslin and Thompson didn’t care about fans. They wanted to kick morality into the river. They were looking for their own audience.
Thompson found it with Gonzo journalism, Breslin found it being himself. They both learned what is essential to journalism and life. You accept fact as fiction and fiction as fact.
Thompson claimed Richard Nixon taught him that. “He was a crook,” Thompson wrote in his obituary for Nixon. “He was a liar and a quitter and he should have been buried at sea. He was a monster.”
We learned a lot from people like Nixon. Bukowski said, “I don’t have time for things that have no soul.” Nixon obviously never had one. Politics is soulless, entertainment is soulless. Advertising is about as soulless as Hell itself.
I thought their voices were original. In their own way they were. But it wasn’t honesty that attracted me to them. It was nerve.
I always wanted to write like Julian Koenig and Paula Greene, two of the best copywriters at Doyle Dane Bernbach during the sixties. I thought their voices were original. In their own way they were. But it wasn’t honesty that attracted me to them. It was nerve. They were nervy people.
I’m sure they started out trying to copy someone else. Then they got antsy. They figured why not have an original voice? That decision changed them — and advertising. It takes nervy people to do that.
I remember Elmore Leonard saying he tried writing like Hemingway until he discovered Hemingway had no sense of humor. “That did it for me,” Leonard confessed. We’ve abandoned heroes for less. I abandoned Raymond Carver because he was depressing. Life is too funny to be sad. If we don’t accept that, we’ll end up like Richard Nixon.
“Never let facts stand in the way of a good story,” Thompson once said, which you don’t expect from a journalist, but he’s right.
Dave Barry, formerly with The Miami Herald, always makes me laugh. “Scientists now believe that the primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid,” he wrote, which must be true. Breasts are part of maternal growth and males are stupid. There has to be a connection.
“Never let facts stand in the way of a good story,” Thompson also said, which you don’t expect from a journalist, but he’s right.
When he was reporting on the Roxanne Pulitzer trial, he never entered the courtroom. Instead, he scoured Palm Beach, looking for people who knew Roxanne. As he explained, “They were all circling their wagons,” hoping nobody realized Roxanne was a babe in the woods compared to most of them.
It was a good story, one I respected because it seemed true. Crazy shit went on in Palm Beach. If Thompson exaggerated, most Floridians wouldn’t know the difference.
I’d found a voice, a small beachhead between Dave Barry and Richard Nixon. Both are funny in their own way, Nixon more so now that he’s dead, but it’s incidental.
After three novels, countless articles, four children’s books and tons of advertising copy, I discovered myself. In some respects, I was still powerwalking on acid. Dinosaurs were everywhere. They took the form of publishers, reviewers and occasional friends.
I’d found a voice, a small beachhead between Dave Barry and Richard Nixon. Both are funny in their own way, Nixon more so now that he’s dead but it’s incidental. He could have lived and been hysterical.
All that’s left now is to tidy up my own lies. They’re here on the desk, the filing cabinet and the rug. By tidy I mean they’ll become something. I’m getting better at fabricating. I doubt I’ll reach the level of Thompson or Hemingway or Breslin. What I wouldn’t give to write like Breslin or Thompson—or Dave Barry.
I think it would make me a damn good liar.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, journalist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.