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.