Thursday, August 16, 2007

California Slick

Yesterday's post had a comment from Denise of Not-What-It-Seems. She noted my vague attempts at updating my reading list and asked whether I had started Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love--and didn't I just love it. The answer to that is yes, and no. I am not finished with the book yet, having just begun the Love part, so I feel it unfair (hah!) to offer an opinion, a review, a critique, as it were. Because who knows what the author will manage in the last section. Suffice to say, the first two sections brought to mind an experience I had when I too was an ambitious writer looking to break into the NY publishing scene.

My career was more than promising then. I had by-lines in respected publications and a reputation as someone who worked with words as well as ideas. Somehow or other I got hooked up with a NY agent who had A Great Idea For A Book. He'd met one of those beautiful women who waft through Los Angeles, providing the look of A Scene, but little else. Her name was--let's call her Lisa--and she was gorgeous. She also had a personality defect; she was boring. Not in a Paris Hilton way, but in a maybe-I've-done-too-much-dope and my-voice-is-a-nasal drone manner. But she had a helluva a story to tell, which included big Hollywood names, big money, big drugs, big drama. So the agent had this terrific looking woman with this terrific story--and an inability to get it down on paper in anything that resembled a coherent or, even, interesting manner.

This is where I came in. I was the writer on the project. Not a ghost, because I negotiated for an AND credit, but certainly I would not be the one appearing on the talk shows. Certainly I would be the one doing all the work. We signed contracts with Random House and got down to work. Hah! Work for Lisa consisted of lounging on her bed, recounting her past exploits in a voice that was just this side of soporific. I would appear at her Benedict Canyon house three or four days a week and--little would happen. There was a manuscript floating around behind her story, a diary written by one of the principles, but I could not pry it out of Lisa's hands. You see, she wanted to be A Writer. I believe she once told me that her destiny was to be a writer, one she had prepared for by reading just about everything she could. She knew this story of hers was her big chance to be A Writer, and she didn't want me taking it from her.

The thing about being A Writer, though, is that you have to be able, physically and mentally, to put instrument to paper, and Lisa couldn't get a grip on that. Her best efforts, those that resulted in several consecutive sentences, were done under the blankets with a pillow over her head. Automatic writing, perhaps, but certainly not productive enough to get the draft for Chapter One that I was supposed to present to Random House in several weeks.

I recall an impasse and several phone calls to the agent. Finally, at last, Lisa handed over the diary and I worked at shaping it into something that would grab the editor. Our contracts, you see, depended on the first chapter being approved. So I winnowed and edited and spun dross and winnowed some more. Then I presented the chapter to the editor. We had lunch, as I recall, and I was certain that this was only the first of a lifetime of lunches with NY editors. He took me back to Random House and loaded me down with free books. Lunch! Free books! Hog heaven for a freelancer! In return, I handed over Chapter One. I don't remember being particularly enthralled with it, but then I never am until I've seen my stuff in print. I wasn't embarrassed, either however. It was what it was, considering the life grip Lisa had maintained on the material almost to the last minute.

The agent called me several days later. The editor had read it. He was still interested, but--it needed revision. It was, in his words, California slick. What was California slick? A genre born of glossy magazines that originated on the West Coast, which meant that they were, by definition less than anything produced by an East Coast writer. Random House needed this memoir to be, I don't know, more New York literary? I sensed that I had fallen down that rabbit hole labeled Coastal Rivalries, and this allowed me to break the contract Lisa and I had had, gracefully as I recall, but maybe not. California slick was the best I was going to be able to do, tied to this pony in a three-legged race. I packed my pages and went back to LA, never to see Lisa again. I don't know what happened to her story; I certainly have never seen her on the book-selling circuit.

So why does Eat Pray Love bring to mind this story? Because the writing is awfully familiar to me. It's the writing of someone in a hurry to get a piece of work done. It relies on quirks of personality to carry the story, on the writer's cuteness and flirtation with the reader. It's a big subject, written small. It's California slick.

But then I'm not done with the book yet, so I could be wrong.


  1. Thank you! I read it during a couple of flights and thought it to be, at best, contrite and just-this-side of logic/reality. When will people learn to just get the damn job done, stop whining and be nice?

  2. ummm, the logic-reality bit? another thing that we'll have to agree to disagree about (you republican, you). my objections to the book have to do with the writing, not the philosophy.

  3. Oh that's a good story. (your's I mean, I'm not familiar with the book)

    It should flatter you that they evidently couldn't find a replacement!


So--whaddaya think?