People decide to write books for a lot of different reasons. Some perceive it as a glamorous profession that inspires awe. Some see it as a chance to impart cautionary advice based on their experiences. Some are seduced by the number of “O’s” they anticipate will be on their first check. Some view it as a ticket to immortality that will remain on bookshelves throughout the world long after they have exited it themselves.
And then there are those who embrace publication as a way to inflict total embarrassment on anyone who has ever really annoyed them beyond redemption.
In my capacity as a script consultant and a ghostwriter, I’ve encountered no shortage of individuals who have something they not only want to get off their chests but also believe they should be paid handsomely for it. Such was the case of an associate who wanted me to read her unpublished book and advise her on whether it had the makings of a great movie.
“And every single word is true,” she made a point of telling me. “It’s important everyone know that.”
I had already heard the gist of her story two years previous over dinner – the unsettling tale of how a career woman’s foray into Internet dating resulted in the scenario of an aggressive predator who invited himself into her home and proceeded to not only avail himself of her credit cards but also deplete her bank account and liquor cabinet.
On the one hand, it’s a topical warning to the lovelorn not to believe everything they read in an email. As one of my favorite New Yorker canine cartoons illustrates, “On the Internet, they can’t tell if you’re a dog.” On the other hand, I didn’t realize how much of her uninhibited past would be incorporated in the text. Subtlety was not her strong suit. To say that her previous sexual exploits were salacious and indiscreet would be an understatement. Even halfway through the read, I can’t help but wonder why using her own name and sharing it with the universe at large is so important to her. I whimsically pointed out that if she were applying for a job as a bank teller, these confessions would be akin to putting on a resume, “I used to commit bank robberies and served 20 years in prison for it but, honestly, that’s all behind me now.”
Should this book or its film version ever see the light of day under the terms she desires, it will be as much a political suicide for her career as it will close the door on future romance with anyone other than a kinky kindred spirit. This, ironically, from a woman who tells me she continues to troll the online dating sites and classifieds in search of lasting love.It’s an interesting commentary on our culture that scandal has become the new standard for entertainment.
Over the years, I’ve seen countless proposals in which writers either want to dish on celebrities they knew before they were famous or bare their own souls and vent against anyone from childhood, marriage or the workplace who allegedly did them wrong. “This will make a great movie,” they always tell me, “because it really happened.”
Suffice it to say, catharsis may be good for the soul but doesn’t always translate to success at the box office or book fairs. While the exercise of chronicling personal events has merit as a way of understanding them - and perhaps preventing repetition - writers often make the mistake of believing that such retrospective content will be as riveting to strangers as it was to those who lived it. They further imbue their scripts’ villains with enough traits (including similar names and occupations) as to make their real-life identities quite obvious to anyone who sees them up on the screen.
Yes, there’s admittedly a certain level of glee in turning one’s ex-boyfriend into a chalk outline on the floor or casting an obnoxious boss in the unsavory part of a horned troll. Where many writers cross the line, however, is when they court a potential lawsuit with slanderous remarks that a living individual (or his/her heirs) may not be too keen about seeing put in public circulation. In the case of the Internet dating premise, the author told me from the outset that she had kept everyone’s real name in the story for gritty authenticity. This not only included the names of her married lovers and Johns but also their sexual proclivities. Instinct tells me that no good can come of these casual disclosures.
There’s definitely no arguing that truth is stranger than fiction. The big difference, though, is that fiction is usually more marketable. Why? Because the dull parts can be edited out, the setbacks can be magnified to evoke sympathy, and the intentions manipulated to resonate with the demographics. Hollywood biopics – dramatized biographies of notable individuals – are a marriage of the facts (that provide the basic framework) and the interpretation of those facts (that provides the scintillating coating). Film depictions of famous people have long been a mainstay of cinema because we’re simultaneously seduced by the mystique that won legions of fans and touched by the enormity of sorrow endured in the process. The object lesson at their core is universal: love, success, victory and/or redemption are attainable but only if one is willing to make enough sacrifices.To this end, inspirational stories of individuals who have publicly risen above hard times make for a more commercial product than true-life accounts by unknowns who are banking on the sale of their memoirs to validate a plethora of miseries they have thus far been unable to transcend.
That we (hopefully) grow from our life experiences corresponds to the notion of “character arcs” in screenplays; specifically, whoever the protagonist was at FADE IN or CHAPTER ONE will either have evolved or devolved by FADE TO BLACK or THE END as a result of everything that transpired in-between.
For the sake of simplicity, a character’s journey throughout a book or a movie can be compared to an individual’s journey throughout life. At the toddler/adolescent stage, it’s all about me, me, me. The wants and needs of anyone outside that insular mindset are insignificant. When the individual meets a soul mate, the dynamic shifts into the next two stages: making decisions in consideration of the partnership’s emotional health, followed by the responsibility of providing security for a family unit. The fourth stage of development is that of neighborhood/community, bringing with it the “united we stand/divided we fall” perspective that group talents can be pooled for a common good. The final level is global awareness, the sensitivity that stems from seeing the bigger picture and striving to leave a spiritual or material legacy to those who follow.
As long as a lead character continues to move up or down in the aforementioned levels of perspective, readers and viewers will enthusiastically fasten their seatbelts and stay there for the ride. It’s only when that character stays rooted in one place for the entire plot that we come away with the question, “What was the point?” Truth be told – and often in more graphic detail than we care to know – diary content generally doesn’t advance beyond the “me, me, me” stage which, thus, makes it a hard sell to anyone. Nor have the authors of these tomes necessarily advanced to a coveted state of A-List recognition that will guarantee an eager audience.
There is also the oft-overlooked reality that deceased luminaries represent a complete package as opposed to a thirtysomething (or younger!) who decides to write his/her life story. (Some of them even go so far as to tell me which actors they think should portray them.) Unless they have experienced or survived something truly incredible/unique/bizarre at a young age that we need to learn about right now, the majority of us deem any memoirs penned earlier than one’s golden years as a tad pretentious and self-absorbed.
Last but not least circles back to the question of one’s real motivations in dragging skeletons out of the closet and putting them on display for a price. In the case of writers whose objective is to dish on celebs, the underlying reason usually turns out to be that they weren’t invited to ride along on the latter’s coattails and therefore, are going to make them feel really, really bad. Word of advice: celebs are generally well protected by agents and managers who really, really don’t like seeing their employers trashed and may initiate legal proceedings to make the nuisance go away. For those who opt to wickedly dish on themselves, the bottom line is whether (1) those 15 minutes of fame are really worth the loss of privacy and (2) the message has a redeeming value beyond just the desire to confess. As I advise my clients, oftentimes the better course is to pitch the project as a work of fiction. Should the curious later inquire what inspired it, one can graciously smile…and leave them guessing.
As for my associate – who insisted that she wanted my honest reaction to her work and that nothing I said would affect our friendship – I never heard from her again after I gave her my notes that suggested she might want to rethink her end-game. It’s probably just as well. The day I dropped off the package at her office, she told me she was on her way to a hot lunch date with a new guy she’d met on MySpace. Having read in her book that her first dates always included a romp in the nearest hotel room and that – to save time – she always wore a miniskirt without any underwear, it didn’t escape my notice how she was dressed.
It’s definitely way more information than I ever needed to know.