Just The “Agony” Part
Best part of the big “Retracted” This American Life thing for me was hearing, for the first time, about Mike Daisey’s 2006 monologue, Truth: The Heart Is a Million Little Pieces Above All Things about James Frey, Laura Albert/JT LeRoy, and, you know, the nature of truth in art. Unable to find anything but reviews and critic pull quotes about Truth in the lazy hour I spent looking for some kind of transcript (Daisey’s agonizing, interminable pauses between his interrogators’ questions offering me ample time to google stuff) has only inspired me to imagine the content of such a monologue more and more vividly. It is a reaction, I think, that speaks to the heart of why I self-identify as a writer and storyteller. I like to imagine things. More than just enjoying it, I aspire to imagine things well.
I only read, like, thirty pages of A Million Little Pieces before stopping because, true or not, for my money, Frey just wasn’t doing a good enough job imagining things. The idea that a described event/feeling/whatever’s “authenticity” could influence the quality of the art made about it still feels to me like an idea that only a non-artist could fixate on. It is for this reason that attempted journalists so often grow up to be artists, I think, while attempted artists only very rarely grow up to be journalists.
The cliche that artists are liars feels true to me. Thumbs up to any journalists who just LOLed at the phrase “feels true” - I can only imagine the ridiculous shit artists like Daisey and myself would try and get away with if pros like you weren’t doing reliable, well-researched, often narratively dissatisfying radio shows about us. As a frequent liar myself, I recognized Daisey’s vague, prevaricating answers to Schmidt’s and Glass’ excellent questions immediately because they were the same vague, prevaricating answers I’ve given to those well-meaning authorities who have, in my life, attempted to give me an exit strategy, a way out of the art I did. But why would I want a way out? Good lies work, are convincing, for the same reason good art works, because they are well imagined; they Feel True. “I’m calling people like, ‘Oh my God! This happened!’” Oprah complains to Frey, feeling (correctly) that she has been lied to, Oprah a cipher for the sentimentality that is so integral to our humanity, the part of us that believes our feelings have something to do with reality. “So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?” Schmidt asks Daisey, followed by a silence long enough to make you wonder if your radio hasn’t lost the signal. It is the silence of all artists, the long stare out the window that is the gestation period of inspiration, followed, finally, by Daisey’s response, birth, the creative act. “I wouldn’t express it that way.”