Beg, Borrow, Steal

When I began Michael Greenberg’s memoir, Beg, Borrow, Steal billed as a ‘wry and vivid take on life as a writer trying to practise his craft and simply stay afloat’ I felt initially a little short-changed. This isn’t a coherent memoir as such, but a collection of pieces written as a regular column for the Times Literary Supplement. And it doesn’t read much like the life of a writer, either. Greenberg describes his antagonistic relationship with his immigrant father, who wanted him to go into the scrap metal business, and he details life in the scruffy parts of New York City. He relates the tale of how he became a father at the tender age of 21, in the aftermath of an uprising in Argentina, and talks about his Jewish cultural legacy, powerful still despite his lack of religious feeling. These pieces are all very beautifully written, but they are not stories as such. They evoke a time and a place and often an event, but they don’t have endings or make sense of what passes. Instead, they are rather like exquisite dream fragments, vividly recalled and urgently significant, only on waking one wonders what they really did mean.

After a while, though, I began to feel that the discontinuous, fragmentary nature of his writings were an apt accompaniment to the kind of writing life he is evoking. This isn’t the kind of writer I have in my mind when I think of the role, and picture someone sitting at a keyboard, engaged, focused, and ultimately fulfilled. No, Greenberg is offering a probably far more realistic portrait of the artist as odd-job man, scraping a living in his nasty little rented workroom (when he tries to sublet, the woman to whom he shows it does her best to subdue her horror, but certainly doesn’t take it on), regularly shafted by industry professionals and obliged to go to weird and wonderful lengths to get the kind of experience that translates into a good story. It’s precisely because he is a writer that he falls foul of the rough side of human nature; his ‘was a hunger for exotic human attachment, not material greed.’ He spends six years on a novel, only to have the editor to whom it is sent (a personal hero of his) write back with the words ‘This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction. Good luck in finding it a home.’ And eventually a kind of negative pride kicks in when trying to gain some credit in the screenwriting business:

You can’t gain much if your name’s not in lights, but you can’t lose either. Sometimes this attitude catches up with me; I wonder if I’m trying to shield myself from the trials of competition, the heartache and paranoia that come with being in the fray. Lately, I’ve taken to accentuating my obscurity as a kind of identity in itself, a badge of honor. Sometimes, I insist on it.

Whilst this is, I think, what writing is really like when you commit to it, which is to say, for the most part humiliating, financially unrewarding and a lot of hard work, there is nevertheless a romantic stereotype that inevitably creeps in here and corrupts the purity of the account. It’s the writer as eccentric, marginal type. The writer as misunderstood and mistreated by society. The writer as a kind of gypsy, creating beauty out of an itinerant and impoverished lifestyle, trading security and comfort for the freedom of the road and a perception cleared of ideological baggage. The kind of writer, yes, who starves in a garret, but who never deviates from the yearning path of creation.

Towards the end of the book, Greenberg publishes a memoir to some evident acclaim. It’s the story of his daughter’s psychotic breakdown (Hurry Down Sunshine) and he discovers that published writing with your actual name on it brings its own kinds of trouble, mostly from the real people whom he represents in the story, and Amazon, where he checks his sales rank obsessively and reads ugly reviews of his book. But his daughter, who he fears will be upset by his account, is actually enlightened by it: ‘I felt I was reading about someone else, a fifteen-year-old girl named Sally who had been to hell and was the only one who didn’t know it. How many people get to look at themselves in such a way?’ Ultimately, I felt this was a celebration of the one thing that no one can take away from the writer: the unflinching attitude of perception that can sometimes deliver exquisite truths, even if everything else – security, status, love, material comfort – has to be given up for it. Definitely worth a read for anyone else crazy enough to fall a little in love with that proposition.


11 thoughts on “Beg, Borrow, Steal

  1. Some interesting points. “This mansucript represents everything I hate in fiction”. This is such an emotional reaction that one is inclined to wonder what that novel was about. It sounds as if it wasn’t bad but on the contrary capable of triggering strong reactions. He was lucky that his daughter reacted well when reading the memoir. Someone else might have felt robbed. I’m not too sure whether I would like to read this book (Beg, Borrow, Steal) or not though.

  2. I remember hearing about this book, wanting to read it, and then being annoyed with the writer for doing the memoir about his daughter’s pain. But it makes me feel a bit better to know that she was happy with it. (A bit — I still have mixed feelings about writing bad things about your kids…)

  3. At least everything else is given up for something the writer values, as opposed to giving up everything because financial idiots got too big for their britches and practically bankrupted the globe, for example.

  4. Mary – which is probably why so many people love to write and find it terrifying at the same time!

    Caroline – interestingly enough, the editor who said that went on to publish his own memoir and it revealed a very similar story to the one Greenberg was telling. You can make of that what you will. I was won over by the end of the book and very glad I’d read it – his writing really is excellent.

    Jenny – yes, it does sound as if it was a contentious memoir to write (and he was aware of that). But the daughter really didn’t mind, and her mother, his ex-wife, wasn’t bothered either. It was the more marginal characters and his current wife who seemed to be more uncertain about it – the people who were less involved in the heart of the story and had a perspective on the sidelines. I find that children really like honesty. My son hates it when I sanitize or neutralise his behaviour and say, ‘oh it wasn’t very bad’, or ‘you didn’t mean to really’. I suppose he feels it is untruthful, and that I’m not really recognising him in the moment. But I also suppose there’s a notable difference between that and telling other people about it.

    nicola – oh I’m glad if you’d like to read it. I thought it was really interesting, ultimately.

    Lilian – for example! And what a good example that is. Alas, it seems like more people are motivated by greed than by truth, love and beauty, but you’ve got to hope that’s not actually the case, just media spin.

    Squirrel – that’s very insightful as I also found myself thinking a lot of blogging when I was reading it. The chapters feel almost like blog posts in themselves.

  5. This sounds like a differently written kind of memoir. I’ve read Greenberg’s pieces in the TLS before, though I can’t say I recall what any of them were about. I did enjoy them though, that much I am sure of.

  6. I also had mixed feelings when reading his other memoir (Hurry Down Sunshine). I really admired the writing and the truth-telling and was uncomfortable at the amount that he put on display. But there’s also something very courageous in that (and as you say, his daughter really reacted positively to it). Very interesting that the editor had a similar experience! I would think that such a strong reaction would require more explanation from the editor’s part. I love what you wrote about the writer as outsider. Very rich area to explore – and then there’s the whole issue of how language alienates us from experience anyway.

  7. This sounds very interesting — I like the idea of a memoir that’s really a collection of fragments (Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution does something kind of similar — it does tell a coherent story, but in small bits that are kind of jumbled up). Memoirs with a little bit of randomness and incoherence strike me as much more believable than the other kind! I have a copy of Hurry Down Sunshine on my shelves but haven’t read it yet. I’m curious about that one too.

  8. Exquisite truths–I like that–that must be what I’m looking for in books without really realizing it. I didn’t think I was familiar with Greenberg, but I have heard of Hurry Down Sunshine–interesting story. Poor man–boo to amazon and ugly reviews, but maybe I shouldn’t say that. I’m quite intrigued by both books now.

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