Monday, April 25, 2011

An Open Letter to James Franco.

Dear James Franco,

Here are some things people do when they get nervous: eat, smoke, chew clay pottery (I saw it on a cable-access show), dress up in a bear costume (know someone -- panda suit), exercise, meditate, prune little plants, build lamps in basements, pet a cat ...

It seems like you might have a very specific nervous tic -- applying to graduate programs. You have SIMULTANEOUSLY attended grad school -- according to Wikipedia -- at Columbia's MFA program, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, Brooklyn College for fiction, AND Warren Wilson's Low Residency Program for poetry. FOUR programs at once.

How would anyone attend four programs at once and still have time to make out with Sean Penn AND saw their arm off in a deep crevasse? (Ah, much less do charitable work and have a personal life...)

You did nail the MFA from Columbia, one down. But then last year, you accepted another offer at Yale -- for the PhD in English -- and Wikipedia adds that you "will also attend the Rhode Island School of Design". How? By what act of Mad Eye Moody sorcery or multi-locating sainthood?

And, THIS year, the winner is [sound of envelope opening with Anne Hathaway looking on]: the University of Houston's PhD program in Creative Writing.

This is one pretty intense nervous tic -- in fact, you're like the Nomar Garciaparra of academia. You're the Elliot Gould of application-whispering.

Here's where someone else might want to offer some crackpot psychology. Is there some compensation going on here? Did someone tell the young Franco that he wasn't smart? (A lot of us writers heard the same thing -- we let our minds drift and wander from stuffy classrooms to the banks of crank-out windows, from the words on the page to the feel of them in our mouths to the lemon shine of the image in our heads. You're in good company. No need to prove anything.)

But still it doesn't hurt to say it: James, you're smart. You write stories that are definitely worthy of competing with the pool of emerging writerly talent in the United States of America. Yes, celebrity rubs off on your publications, but so does a good dose of cynicism that's probably hard to endure; it surely clouds everything, for better and worse. All of your acting work bears fruit in your other creative fields -- fiction, for one, is all about character, after all. And you are fruitful, evidenced by the way you multiply yourself. If you want to grow as a writer and a poet (or even biosynthesis nanotechnologist), you'll likely be able to do it -- but not because of your intelligence or talent (by God, there's a lot of smart talent out there) but because if your work ethic, your hyper-drive focus. In fact, I think it's all transferable.

But is your multi-applying compulsiveness working in your favor as a writer? Doesn't the act of applying alone take time away from your writerly endeavors?

Don't get me wrong; I admire your devotion to life-long learning.

And your compulsive applying leads to annual acceptances which gives higher ed a little sexy edge -- like those old library posters of Baryshnikov (and Kermit the Frog -- not as sexy but evidently surprisingly verdantly cerebral) reading a book (Tolstoy, I think). And -- my, my -- higher ed could use a little sex appeal.

If it's all good -- you're happy and higher ed is happy -- why should I care?

But I do. I fear a kind of excess going on. I fear that we're bordering on another star ODing.

Granted, I don't worry about you as I have Robert Downey, Jr., that unhinged Sheen boy, or Lindsay Lohan. This kind of overdose probably won't lead to coma or death. In fact, at worst, it might cause a little carpel tunnel.

But still workshops can get addictive -- the little crack high of criticism, of creating a chorus of critical voices in your head, of that readership locked in a room reeling with words. (In this metaphor, I guess I'm a pusher and a dealer, but actually I'm calling for a little intervention, some low-level rehab.)

Built with the best intentions, workshop is a false construct and one that a writer has to eventually outgrow. I guess I'll say to you what I'd say to just about any of my students after their MFA years. It's no longer about the workshop and the peers and the well-known writer mouthing off about craft. It's about you in a room. It's about that relationship with the page. It's about weaning from the crack high of criticism and quieting the critical voices. It's about the minutes adding up to hours. A world emerging and a voice to tell it.

There's no 12 step program probably because there are only two steps. Sit down and write. (And the first step is optional.)

Give us some more dark underworld of characters adrift. Give us some more of your Palo Alto.

Just tell it.


Julianna Baggott