When I came across the Greek maxim “Know thyself” in my college freshman humanities class, I thought it was the key to life.
Then a couple of years later, I decided to become a fiction writer and discovered Hemingway’s dictum to “write what you know.”
Such a thing seemed simple, but it took me another 20 years or so to realize just how difficult it is to “know thyself” or “write what you know”—we’re elusive creatures by design, always changing, seeking, and fleeing. Writing what you know becomes something like a pilgrimage, a chase scene, a dreamscape, a meditation, and a scientific experiment all in one.
In fact, according to the Suda, a 10th Century encyclopedia of Greek Knowledge, “Know thyself” has contradictory meanings. On one hand, the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are, but on the other, it is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitudes.
I’m traipsing through such thoughts because I’ve been revisiting that crazy, fantastic, compelling “hoax” of JT LeRoy since Laura Albert (aka JT) contacted me when she stumbled on a blog piece (Finally, the Great American Novel) I wrote when the whole scandal went down five years ago.
In case you missed it, JT LeRoy was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Laura Albert and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop rescued JT and helped him get treatment by a psychologist. Then, with the help of literary luminaries such as Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper and others, JT wrote critically acclaimed works of fiction noted for their stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use.
Shy, wounded, reclusive, yet riveting, JT attracted a swirling flock of celebrities like Winona Ryder and Courtney Love—except it turned out that JT was Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop’s half sister, who wore a wig, sunglasses, and a hat in “his” few public appearances. And Laura Albert penned all of JT’s books.
Looking at the photos again, it wasn’t as if JT was disguised with any CIA type of sophistication. Yet people believed that JT was JT, perhaps against their better judgment, for reasons that might tell a larger story (what did they see in JT that they needed to see?).
When New York Magazine and The New York Times uncovered the true story of JT LeRoy, the story turned into a scathing public drama that was the literary world’s equivalent of the press chasing O.J. as he tried to escape in his SUV (except without any blood), with many of JT’s one-time supporters caterwauling, “Shame, shame!” in outrage.
I don’t truly know Laura Albert, but from our recent correspondence I like her as a risk taker who is genuinely trying to represent a “truth” in the world—the task every serious writer takes on. She pursues such a truth more in the vein of Werner Herzog’s notion of “ecstatic truth”—a truth that is the enemy of factual truth in its aim of capturing something more sublime. Herzog says that “to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants.” And much of our narrow-minded, prudish literary establishment.
I’m not so concerned about the rich and powerful being scammed for what is the equivalent of loose change to them, or whether they had their feelings hurt. What interests me is the nature of writing with such a mask on, and I appreciate the moxie it took to put on such a performance.
“Performance” is the key word here. I like to think of JT’s novels not as just novels, but as part of a larger performance piece—one that put a wispy, vulnerable figure who looked like one part Andy Warhol, one part Michael Jackson, and one part blank slate on stage.
Instead of viewing it all as a swindle, I view it as an act of creation that grew in wild and unexpected ways and became far bigger than could have been imagined. I say “act of creation” because creation seemed to be at the root of it—a rollicking, gleeful, daring, probing, and carnivalesque exploration that in the end reflected our culture in a way that few acts have (I’d trade several National Book Award winners for it all).
And in the end, the fundamental question remains: If you liked the novels when they were written by JT LeRoy, why should you esteem them less when you find out they were written by Laura Albert? Perhaps the work should even grow in stature.
Just read the blurbs for the novel Sarah—blurbs that aren’t your ordinary blurbs churned out for marketing purposes. The authors who blurbed the book—Chuck Palahniuk, Jerry Stahl, Suzanne Vega, etc.—wrote truly imaginative, energetic assessments. They loved JT.
“JT LeRoy’s Sarah is a revelation,” writes Dennis Cooper. “It makes you realize how overused words like original and inspired have become. LeRoy’s writing has a passion, economy, emotional depth, and lyric beauty so authentic that it seems to bypass every shopworn standard we’ve learned to expect of contemporary fiction. This is a novel gripped by an intense, gorgeous, yet strangely refined imagination, and its experience is unforgettable.”
Laura—who might still be one part JT despite the obvious forcefulness of her personality—sent me a video of her recent appearance at The Moth (see below), where she gives her side of the story. It’s interesting to hear how her path to becoming JT wasn’t full of the calculation the press seared into its headlines, but was a mask that opened up a path to a story—a mask created from her own past as an abused child and the tales of others she took in.
Most, if not all, good writers write via a mask of some sort, whether named or unnamed, acknowledged or not. The notion of a single, pure self is antiquated (even the Greeks knew as much in their aphorism). We know ourselves principally through the eyes of others and the ways we seek to be seen. So writers put on guises, code switch, mimic, and dramatize themselves to find the story—and then the reader does the same in seeking to see himself/herself in the text.
Knowledge is a game of storytelling, as akin to fiction as nonfiction. Tell yourself you’re a victim, and you’ll get one storyline and one set of “facts”; tell yourself you’re a hero, and you’ll get another.
I’ve always been a solitary writer, to my disadvantage. Recently, though, in the act of sharing my writing and writing with readers in mind, I’ve discovered how the context of writing (the cloak of self-mythology you write in, who you want to be seen as) informs and changes the text.
I think of Roland Barthes and his concept of the jouissance, the play, the erotics that occurs between writer and reader. “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me,” he writes in The Pleasure of the Text, claiming that writing is “the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra.”
The writer seeks a reader, seeks ways to reveal and touch, and will put on any guise available to accomplish those ends, like a good lover. There are many different ways to tell a story (“various blisses of language”), which makes the notion of “write what you know” quite complicated. We write through the “anxieties of influence” of past authors, as Harold Bloom has famously noted, but we also write through the masks we create in pursuit of self.
An outlaw’s attitude is essential. “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” William Faulkner said.
So I invite you to watch the video below and ask yourself whether Laura Albert is a “fake fiction writer,” as she has been called? Is she an outlaw? A charlatan? Does it matter who JT LeRoy is? Who are you when you write? Who do you want to be?