Books Although you might not necessarily notice, I’m often wrecked by writer’s block. Countless minutes, hours even, staring at the flashing cursor in a Word document waiting for inspiration, not knowing where to begin. I know that one of the writing techniques favoured is to start in the middle with the easier sections and work outwards and while that’s fine for academic writing, I know that when I’m splattering opinion on whichever screen this blog will appear, I have to begin at the beginning because it’ll set the tone for everything else.
Sometimes I’ll utilise the Douglas Adams approach of leaving the room and making a cup of tea or having a bath, or in my case a shower since we don’t have a bath and most often something will flash through my brain much as it did about five minutes ago before I returned to my chair for this. True, the result isn’t the most original of openings and on reflection I might even have used it before, but it is at least relevant to the job at hand, reviewing artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s semi-memoir It Chooses You, because it too was the result of writer’s block.
Though her methodolgy for breaking the cycle is rather more complex.
In 2009, July was deep into the writing of her screenplay for her film The Future. She knew how to open and end her story but the middle was a mess, and the more she wrote the messier it became, the insidious version of writer’s block in which the words do flow but they’re either rubbish or mediocre. Idling away one afternoon she says, she was flicking through the Penny Saver, a kind of freebee Exchange and Mart distributed through the Los Angeles area and was intrigued by one advert from a seller offering a leather jacket.
July phoned the seller and asked if she could interview him about his life, offering to pay him for his time. He agreed, and she stumbled briefly into his life, seeking a human relevancy back to her screenplay. So began a detour in which she set about visiting and chatting to as many people as she could from the Penny Saver catalogue. She was accompanied by her assistant Alfred and photographer Bridget Sire, to add legitimacy to what was essentially serial intrusion into other people’s pain to help nullify her own.
The ensuing publication is part artists book, part social commentary and part “making of” for The Future and the result is a bit peculiar, Dave Gorman’s Googlewack Adventure written by a contemporary artist rather than a comedian, and not unlike this old episode of This American Life. A series of people, mainly on the breadline, invite July into their homes where she listens to their life stories, often uplifting, usually depressing, sometimes creepy while Sire turns her forensic lens on their possessions which are equally often uplifting, usually depressing and sometimes creepy.
Throughout I found myself looking for connections. All of whom could be considered “artists” in some respect and perhaps July is attracted by a kind of subliminal kinship. Some have effectively turned their bodies into sculptural endeavours through transgenderism or tattoos, another sells Indian clothes, a tadpole breeder, a lady with a menagerie in her back garden, the man who collects and displays pictures of young girls, babies and prisons as a way of expressing the family he’ll never have replicated in the woman whose old scrapbook contains magazine images representing imaginary sisters.
What are we to make of these people? July’s tone means it’s impossible not to be somewhat judgemental especially when we meet the bloke who's had a mannequin manufactured to look like his favourite soap star based on a photo taken when he met her or the other who reveals that one of the loves of his life, when he was in his mid-twenties, wasn’t old enough to get married (with all that implies). Much of the time she wants to leave these homes and their inhabitants not long after she’s arrived, but a natural human curiosity drives her on to meet the next.
Since these are the only sellers she’s been able to persuade to meet her, their openness is a natural part of their personality, though now and then you can detect that if July wasn’t paying, they wouldn’t be talking. But some fall over themselves to speak, loneliness being a strong part of their lives and she’s invited back on more than one occasion, even for Christmas. It’s unusual for anyone to be interested in them, and although she doesn’t put it quiet in these words, July’s very much aware that she’s taking advantage of that.
Of course I see myself in both July and the people she meets. Don't we all have our little collections of things, or moments when we're desperate to tell someone our story in an attempt to validate our existence? I'm always desperately worried that I'm informing someone against their will giving too complex an answer to a relatively simply question. I suppose what warms me to July apart from her inherent whimsy is also her inquiring nature. I like to think I'm capable of that too.
But it does concern me that some of her subjects might react negatively to the way they're portrayed. One seller gives July a smushy fruit salad for lunch, which she later discards mostly uneaten but covers over just in case the person sees what she’s done and is offended. But if that person reads the book, she’ll find out about it anyway and much more besides. Having invited her into their homes, these people have now become the subject of her brutally honest reflections.
Less contentious is the material about the writing process and then some of the filming of The Future. We’re given some unexpected insight into the casting process as she meets a grizzled Don Johnson and watch as the screenplay is influenced by her visits until eventually the film and art project threads coalesce, whimsy giving way to the realities of directing a feature. She counterbalances her opinions of the Penny Savers with some brutal honesty about herself, her own ability to get a film financed despite the relative success of her previous work Me, You and Everyone We Know, but I simply don't know if it's enough.
It Chooses You took two hours to read, about the length of a visit to a particularly rich exhibition and that’s perhaps the best way to approach it. If like me you’re already a fan of July’s work you’ll find much to enjoy, as to an extent she allows us to become the voyeur picking over the details of her own existence and thought processes. If you’re the kind of person who writes, as she describes, blog posts about how annoying she is, it’ll confirm everything you thought. I wonder what she'll make of this blog post.
It Chooses You by Miranda July is published by Canongate Books Ltd. RRP: £16.99. ISBN: 978-0-85786-254-9. Review copy supplied.
[Incidentally,. excepts of the book have been featured at the New Yorker. The first five posts at this link.]
Updated 17/12/2011 Miranda has posted video of meeting Ron who was one of the participants: