Two Weeks in Rehab

3 Nov

When I was fifteen I wrote my first film script. Wrote it out by hand in pencil in a two hundred and fifty page spiral notebook. It was a grand achievement, believe me. It was a full feature. A war epic with explosions and a melodramatic airplane crash, locations in Africa, Morocco, Ankara. And a love story, too. I mean I was fifteen for fuck’s sake. Most of my friends were walking to the mall, hanging out and scratching their balls, looking at girls or drinking Natty Bo’ on a hill every Friday night, firing bottle rockets at one another. So give me that, at least. Give me the Pink Floyd on the boom box, too. I played out The Wall and The Final Cut while writing this masterpiece.

I called it “The House of God” and it was basically an adaptation of Papa Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Some stuff I adapted, other stuff I lifted straight out of his Nick Adams short stories, from his days up in Michigan. Word for word sometimes. I didn’t care about copyright. I never wanted to actually make the film, just write one. Anyway, those Nick Adams scenes were written as flashbacks. As Harry was dying on the flat, dry earth of Africa. They worked well, too. I mean, after all…Hemingway wrote them. Really.

If you know “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I’ve always loved the name Compton. Compton as an angel coming to airlift Harry to a hospital somewhere beyond the mountain. Shuttling him up and above the snow-capped top. Compton as an angel wearing a tweed jacket. I still have that scene in my head. I was in love with death at fifteen. But not from angst or that mumbo jumbo psycho babble teenage shit they give you in books and university courses. I just liked the idea of all of us having a finite chunk of time to foul things up. Preferably shorter rather than longer. Death could be anyone. Your mailman, your milkman. Only we don’t have milkmen, but you know what I mean. There’s an old picture of a milkman in the mid 40s carrying a load of bottles, walking through a ruined city. I had that pasted on my wall in my room while I was writing then. It’s on the Internet, you can probably find it easily now. Someone already has before and sent it to me.
That guy, carrying the milk…that guy could’ve been death. Death bringing you milk.

I sort of fucked up the script, though. Was tripped up by history. Got my world wars mixed up. In Kilimanjaro, Hemingway writes flashbacks to The Great War. World War I. I misunderstood that. I had these dead Turks with their bloody skirts and upturned shoes piled up on quays, rotting away in putrefied states and awful stench…and my story took place in 19 fucking 43.

Well, I tried. And then I joined the rest of the fellows on the hill downing shit beer and smashing cans against my forehead. In the end, that calling was stronger and more attractive than spending more of my summer weeks shut in a basement room with Floyd rolling on a loop.

I struggle with this. Now. The stories. I struggle with the morality of the whole thing. With living the stories. Or having to. The made up stories. The idea that to write them well, you have to live them. Papa fucked it up for me. First he fucked it up by making me think I can write like him. Simple sentences. Easy peasy. And then he fucked it up by saying: “fiction is truer than the truth.” So…then…living the stories in order to write them well. Like how the method actors have to do the shit before they can channel it. To experience it. There’s a great ditty about Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier while they were filming Marathon Man and Olivier’s character was supposed to torture Hoffman by digging into his molars with an electric drill; poking the nerves in his mandible. It’s a famous scene in film history. Olivier drills and keeps asking: Is it safe? Is it safe? Anyway, and so the story goes that Hoffman actually went and got his teeth drilled down to the nerves without anesthesia so he could recall the pain, channel the experience during the filming of the scene. And when Olivier heard what Hoffman had done he looked at him strangely, incredulously, and said: Dustin. You’re an actor. ACT!

I always think of that when I struggle with the morality of writing stories and deceiving people or at least confusing them. There’s Olivier standing there next to me saying: you’re a bloody fiction writer: don’t live it. MAKE IT THE FUCK UP. Only he doesn’t use the F-word. He’s much more eloquent than that. I mean, he’s Lawrence Olivier, fuck’s sakes.

My time in rehab has yielded nothing on paper. Not even a false start. I think if you get caught up in virtue and morals and honesty and all that altruistic, good citizen bullshit you might as well burn everything and go grab a state 9 to fiver working for a mediocre wage with shitty people ordering you around and shop-talking numbers, quotas, projections…all that bile that breaks you down year by year until you become a soul-less nothing with nothing to say, waiting for your Compton in a tweed jacket to come whisk you away and around mount fucking Kilimanjaro. Only if your imagination’s been eviscerated down to that, chances are Compie’s gonna drop you off at lot #46 in Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow cemetery across the street from the Wal-Mart, not some majestic mountain in Tanzania.

That’s what I think.


7 Responses to “Two Weeks in Rehab”

  1. Michelle Wittle 03/11/2009 at 4:22 PM #

    When writing a story, you are not lying to someone. You are telling a tale from your mind, whether you lived it or read a lot about it.
    Now, if you go all James Frey-like on a story, then I would take issue with that venue. But if you are telling someone a story and some parts you add more to and some you take away from…I don’t think the person really cares. they just want to read your work.
    Besides, our charaters live inside us, so how can we say we didn’t live something they have lived.
    I am sure that doesn’t make the proper sense I want it to make, but at the end of the day it comes to this one true fact: You tell a story as honestly as you can, then you aren’t lying to anyone.

  2. Slyboots 04/11/2009 at 11:39 AM #

    I love this piece. Again, it has that personal voice, and really connects. Keep up the great work, Alex!

  3. Floost 04/11/2009 at 3:36 PM #

    Are you a professional journalist? You write very well.

  4. Geoff 05/11/2009 at 7:36 AM #


    After reading this, what strikes me is not that Hemingway fucked it up for you — but rather, that he showed you how, after no small amount of struggle, to make it your own. And so you have.

    To the words,

  5. Matt DeBenedictis 09/11/2009 at 9:52 PM #

    That last paragraph ate me. It’s how my mind feels much of the time. The morality of writing has never played with me; I enjoy the immoral spirit of it. In it I felt I could explain through stories how detached – but randomly – I feel everything is most days. Oh yeah, and laugh.

  6. Mike Camel 23/11/2009 at 10:11 PM #


  7. Mike Camel 23/11/2009 at 10:18 PM #

    “Are you a professional journalist? You write very well.”

    haha that’s funny

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