‘Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.’

by bethanybump

As I often do when I finish cleaning someone’s house early (summer job), a couple weeks ago I found myself leafing through the inhabitant’s books and magazines stacked on his trendy, post-modern coffee table. National Geographic, Newsweek, Rolling Stone topped the stacks, their covers largely uninteresting except for the latter. Robert Downey Jr. was the cover story for that week’s Rolling Stone. Having little knowledge of the magazine outside of assuming it was just about music, I skimmed it for the Downey profile looking for an answer as to why a music magazine would profile an actor.

It didn’t matter, really. Robert Downey Jr. had been a brief crush of mine in my mid-teens, but all the hype about him since Iron Man had made me self-conscious of my own appeal toward him. If the mainstream likes him, I certainly shouldn’t. Regardless, with the first sentence of the profile in Rolling Stone I was hungry for more. I read violently, refusing to put it down when in all likelihood I should have been cleaning up final things in the house I was soon to leave.

I’ve never respected magazines. Their writers, their editors, their condescension. I’ve never respected the people who so vainly want to write for them, most of these people surround me in school, and most of them happen to be clearly privileged girls who think their overpriced wardrobe somehow qualifies them to report on fashion, trends and celebrities in high-profile magazines. Maybe despise is a better word. I pretty much despise them. The way magazine writers write dumbfounds me. There’s always some folksy, trying-too-hard to be relatable element in their language. “You wouldn’t think someone with the media circus of Britney Spears following her around would show up to an interview in ripped jeans and a plain white T-shirt would you?” No, never. I wouldn’t think someone who is trying to tell me there is a certain down-to-earth quality in a celebrity wouldn’t just say that in normal terms. Instead, I find, they write the way they think magazine writers should sound. I’m not innocent of this. Perhaps my biggest fear of writing in the last year has been just that. Sometimes I find myself writing the way I think writers should sound.

Walter Kirn stunned me. In his simplicity, his vocabulary (surprisingly complex but not in the flashy, erudite style people who use words like erudite write), in his apparently heightened perception of the people and things around him. I didn’t recognize the byline, but I knew the only reason I was at all interested in Robert Downey Jr.’s absurd, new age-y, over-hyped life was because of the way Walter Kirn wrote about him. Kirn’s tagline at the end of the article said he was the author of “Up in the Air.” Great movie, but never read the book.

Luckily, I found several of his novels at the Schenectady library last weekend. It also had his memoir, “Lost in the Meritocracy.” After I had finished one of his novels from the 1990s, I started in on the memoir. I now have the need to find every piece of writing of his that’s public and read them all. I have also esteemed him one of my favorite writers, where his writing style not surprisingly fits in with that of my other favorite authors. It appears that over the years I have developed a taste for a certain writing style — Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Chuck Klosterman, James Frey, even. And now Walter Kirn.

Here are a few excerpts from “Lost in the Meritocracy” that I chose — arrogantly — because they remind me of my own thoughts:

“Who knew that serious art could be like this? Who would have guessed that the essence of high culture would turn out to be teasing the poor saps that still believed in it? Certainly no one back in Minnesota. Well, the joke was on them, and I was in on it. I could never go back there now. It bothered me that I’d ever even lived there, knowing that people here on the great coast (people like me—the new, emerging me) had been laughing at us all along. But what troubled me more was the dawning realization that had I not reached Princeton, I might never have even discovered this; I might have stayed a rube forever. This idea transformed my basic loyalties. I decided that it was time to leave behind the sort of folks whom I’d been raised around and stand—for better or for worse—with the characters who clued me in.”

“‘Truman said something interesting last night. We were drinking decaf at my station. I mentioned you. Your vocabulary. Your grades. I told him you might want to be a writer. He said, ‘Millie, your precious little boy is either a writer or he isn’t.’ So I said, ‘How will he know if he’s a writer?’ And Truman, my little Martian, he shook his head, his dear little head, and said, ‘If he keeps on doing it.'”

“Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in. I wanted to find out what others thought.”