I’m not a big fan of autobiographies, but I love memoirs. Where an autobiography tells an individual’s life story, more or less, a memoir focuses on a specific aspect of an individual’s life. And while autobiographies are the sole territory of celebrities and public figures, in so far as the publishing industry is concerned, the memoir section of your local bookstore is bound to be dominated by relatively anonymous folks with really amazing stories to tell. In the last five or ten years, it seems the most commercially successful memoirs revolve around human tragedies—especially if those tragedies are followed up with any sort of triumph or redemption.
One of my very favorite memoirs is The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown. While—for reasons that I’ll never fathom—it wasn’t a commercial success, it has garnered a well-earned cult following. In it, Brown writes about his life as an alcoholic and drug addict.
“All the stores on Hollywood Boulevard are closed for the night, and I duck into the alcove of a souvenir shop, drop a rock into the pipe and light up. My back is to the street and at first, when I feel a wave of heat pass over me, I think it’s on account of the dope, the rush. That it’s powerful stuff. But then it happens again, an even stronger wave along the back of my neck, and that’s when I realize that it’s coming from behind me. Turning, I see it: The building directly across the street is immersed in fire. And it’s a beautiful sight.”
-James Brown, "The Los Angeles Diaries"
I was first introduced to The Los Angeles Diaries when I was an English major at Cal State San Bernardino (or CSUSB). I'd transferred to CSUSB in 2001 and was excited to find out that, within the English program, CSUSB offered an emphasis in creative writing. Up to that point, I’d spent a few years trying to learn the craft on my own. Despite the encouragement of my friends and family, who all seemed to enjoy my short stories, I felt very limited in my abilities. I had what I thought to be loads of creative ideas, however I lacked the appropriate tools to turn those ideas into engaging literary prose.
My first creative writing class at CSUSB was something of a disaster. The professor—who I will not name here—was (and is, I suspect) a very accomplished author, whose career has been decorated with awards and accolades. I was thrilled to sit at the feet of a professional author, somebody who had been to the place I wanted to be and, better yet, could give me some insight on how to get there. I showed up to that class filled with confidence and ambition. By the end of the fall quarter, the professor had managed to strip me of all said confidence and ambition. Going into winter break, I decided to quit writing.
When I told my girlfriend, Chanel, that I was quitting writing, she asked why.
“I’m no good at it,” I told her.
“Yes, you are,” she said.
“No, seriously,” I said, “I’m really not.”
“You’re a great writer,” she said.
“I know you think that,” I said, “but I’m really bad at it.”
“No,” she said, defiantly, “you’re not.”
I found myself getting frustrated with her. She simply didn’t know enough about writing, I told myself, to realize I was no good. But no matter how vehemently I tried to convince her, she refused to believe me.
“If you want to quit,” she said, “that’s fine. But will you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
“Will you write stories just for me?”
“I love your writing,” she said. “So, even if you think your stories are terrible, I still want to read them.”
It seemed reasonable enough. She could go on with the delusion that I was any good and I could take comfort that only one person in the world would have to suffer my writing. So I worked on a short story that had been in my head about a secret criminal enterprise that was fronted by a children’s show starring a clown named Krazy Karl. I never finished the story, but the writing I did served as something of a bridge from the fall to the spring quarter, at which point I decided that I would try one more creative writing class, before quitting for good. So, in the spring of 2002, I registered for a class taught by James Brown.
I had never heard of Brown before and I didn’t learn until the first day of class that, like my previous professor, he was an accomplished author with a handful of novels under his belt and a forthcoming memoir, which he told us was called The Los Angeles Diaries. He seemed like a nice and reasonable man, so I felt comfortable putting the fate of my writing life in his hands. If Brown had nothing good to say about my writing, as was the case with the previous professor, then I would take it as a sign. In fact, I was in such a hurry to find out—once and for all—that I was wasting my time as a writer, I volunteered for the first workshop of the class.
I submitted a revised version of the story I had previously workshopped in my first creative writing class about a teenage boy who is terrorized by three bald men driving a rusty orange pickup truck; they follow him home, tie him to a chair and go through an eccentric ceremony, before shaving his head.
During the course of the workshop, Brown had favorable things to say about both my writing and the story. He had critiques, of course, but they were tactful and constructive. His encouragement lit a fire in my belly and I couldn’t wait to start working on my new revisions, especially since, in between workshops, Brown spent time talking about the craft of creative writing, giving me the tools I had longed for.
Later that year, the English department at CSUSB hosted a reading featuring Brown and The Los Angeles Diaries. I took Chanel with me and we sat in a crowd of people that, ironically enough, included the aforementioned writing professor (who will remain nameless). Brown read from the chapter “Snapshot,” which is the story of his mother burning down an apartment building and all the repercussions this action would have on their family.
“I’m waiting in the car for my mother while she sets fire to an apartment building down the street. I’m five years old. The car is a new Thunderbird with big seats that still smell of fresh vinyl, and the street where we are parked is lined with sycamores that have begun to shed their leaves. It is early in the evening. We are in a quiet working-class neighborhood in San Jose, California, fifty miles south of San Francisco along Highway 101, and when my mother returns to the car, slightly out of breath, we drive to Fisherman’s Wharf and have shrimp cocktails for dinner.”
-James Brown, “The Los Angeles Diaries”
I was struck by the simplicity of his sentences. There was nothing fancy about Brown’s writing; however, the cadence of his prose was methodical and deliberate, hypnotic even. As he read, his seemingly simple prose systematically painted a picture full of genuine emotion and poignancy. By the end, I was thoroughly impressed by Brown’s mastery of the craft. I was also grateful that the man who wrote so beautifully was the same man who was mentoring me in my own pursuit to master the craft.
A few months later, I went to Barnes and Noble to buy The Los Angeles Diaries on the first day it was available. As I read it, I got the sense Brown was trying to piece together the fragments of his life, to look at it all with a sober eye, hoping to discover, through the therapeutic process of writing, how his life turned out the way it did. There are no easy answers in The Los Angeles Diaries and Brown is too wise to pretend he has any. And while Brown’s story is filled with tragedies—some unnecessary, some unavoidable—it is not without hope.
Every time I pick up The Los Angeles Diaries, I find myself feeling grateful all over again. Not just for Brown’s honest and unflinching portrayal of his life, but also for the unwitting hand he played in resuscitating my confidence and ambition. I can say with complete confidence that if it weren’t for James Brown, not only wouldn’t I be writing this blog post right now, I wouldn’t be writing at all—except, of course, for the stories Chanel would invariably have forced out of me.