Justin Townes Earle

Authenticity is the absence of any difference between persona, the way we project ourselves, and our internal state of mind. It has to do with not just how we project ourselves but in how much our projections are reflected back to us from others. When that is achieved, you have a perfect example of success.

On the surface, authenticity seems to place a person at a far distance from the ten personality disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In any event, authenticity seems like a worthy pursuit1)Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38006-9.:

In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of actions. Aristotle viewed ethics in terms of people’s pursuit of the ‘‘higher good.’’ Specifically, he proposed that the highest good is ‘‘activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most complete virtue in a complete life’’. Such pursuits are intimately tied with people’s well‐being (eudaemonia) which is attained by performing activities that reflect one’s true calling (self-realization).

Artists and writers eagerly strive for authenticity as an essential and unavoidable part of their craft. It is probably true—to riff on the bard—that if you were not born with authenticity, you have to achieve authenticity, and, if you cannot achieve authenticity you had better hope it is thrust upon you.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare

In the case of any kind of artist, a writer, a poet, a potter, or a a glass blower, you want all of them: to be born authentic, to achieve more of it, and to have it thrust upon you (to riff on Joseph Heller). Yet, teachers, lawyers and mothers are artists too. All of us are artists in our own way. Authenticity is always in short supply.

In the case of avowed artists, we find many fine examples having to do with “putting yourself out there”.

Lou Reed is an artist I admire for pursuing authenticity with extreme angst, costs be damned. He kept on remaking himself with almost every album he produced, paranoid that popularity was death to his art2)DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.. To be a “sell-out” is the rock star’s favorite damnation.

If you are a country music aficionado, you know there is an evergreen sub-genre dedicated to the defense of “real” country. It is legitimately an industry obsession. Country My Ass is Dale Watson Jr.’s lament with a not-too-subtle dig reserved for Taylor Swift. In Dark Bar and Juke Box, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters, protests that “you won’t find no country on country radio”. This time the digs on Toby Keith:

Give me a dark bar and a jukebox over that radio.
Yeah, Toby just don't cut it, give me Haggard, give me Coe.
And i'm tired of watching Nashville and it's washed up fashion show
Cause you won't find no country on country radio

I muse a lot lately about Justin Townes Earle and his utterly professional demeanor on stage for a performance, handling two hecklers while continuing to tune his guitar and preparing for his next number3)Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXD-Qwt11PQ.. It is a master class in authenticity for a guy who is stoned out of his mind. He was utterly and completely “putting himself out there”, spilling his guts on his checkered history with drug addiction. Check it out on Youtube and the comments that follow, speculating whether there are two guitars playing on stage or just one. It is just one, Justin’s. It is his technique that makes it sound like two.

A dear friend turned me on to Steve Hely’s novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, a case of “imagining the future you want for yourself” if every there was4)Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.. Every line in it will make you bust a stitch until you’re in an ambulance on a gurney on your way to the ER where you will get new stitches just so you can go home and keep reading. It is that hilarious.

The other funny thing about How I Became a Famous Novelist is its relentless skewering of the million and one ways authors go about being not wantonly inauthentic but rather ever… so… slyly… inauthentic.

The protagonist, Pete Tarslow, is more of the wanton kind. He is trying to make the jump from one fraudulent career, penning college admission essays for foreign students as a meretricious ghost writer, to a tonier and ideally more lucrative form of fraudulence: writing novels for fame. His motives are pure; among them, he wants to humiliate the gal who jilted him at her wedding.

So the author, Hely, in his bid for novelistic fame, invents a protagonist, Tarslow, who in his bid for novelistic fame, goes about it by filching tricks of the trade from already famous novelists. Meta enough for you?

Tarslow studies with keen desire the whole pantheon of published authors in search for clues to their success, every time turning up fraud. He zeroes in on “Preston Brooks”, a John Irving doppelgänger, novelist, director of a creative writing program, and author of Kindness to Birds (don’t you love it?). Of the novel Kindness, Tarslow observes:

One could spend hours parsing that intricate latticework of literary sewage: the cartoon bayou dialect, the touches of “realist” detail, the labored folksy imagery, the vague notes of spirituality and transcendence muddled together to make it palatable to anyone.

Tarslow excerpts Kindness which I repeat here so you can see what he’s talking about:

“Is they chickory in that coffee?” she bellowed, in a tired voice that still shook like a thunderclap, a calling-hounds voice.

Need I go on? Okay, I will:

“No, ma’am,” Gabriel hollered back, steadying himself against the buckboard of the Tidecraft Firebird, swaing in the swamp water that swelled and fell like the breast of a mother asleep. “No chickory, but you sure a Cajun woman asking for chickory coffee when you stuck on a patch-tar roof and more water coming up, they sayin. Now reach out your hand Mez Deveroux.”

It would be wrong were Hely not to acknowledge the self-mythological prowess of some successful authors (Hemingway and Kerouac come to mind). He doesn’t disappoint. Again the understudy, Tarslow provides an example from his mentor Preston, who has his obligatory “birth of a writer story” in the can:

Then one morning I woke up in an alley in Minot, North Dakota in the snow. I rooted around in a trash can, hoping to find an old jacket. And I found a tattered copy of Of Mice and Men. Maybe from an angel’s hand. Maybe just a lazy schoolboy. But I read it. And John Steinbeck showed me there was stronger stuff than whiskey.

Once you start to read How I Became a Successful Novelist as satire or as a lightly veiled critique of the United States Creative Writing Industry, Hely’s book reveals how—even if you look like an author, swim like an author, walk like an author, and quack like an author—underneath it all, you’re still very probably just a duck. His book freaks you out by showing you the very subtle ways we can undermine an otherwise genuine mission to achieve authenticity.

If I taught writing, I would start my class with Steve Hely’s book. I would encourage the class to write parody, heaps and heaps of it, so my students could learn what it feels like to be even every so slightly inauthentic.

For Hemingway, they might write:

A goose, separated from the flock, damn-near skimming the flat mirror surface of the lake, flew low and straight and true, in a line so straight it might make an arrow quiver.

The hope would be that, if they did enough of these, they would learn to avoid inauthenticity like COVID-19.

References   [ + ]

1. Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38006-9.
2. DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.
3. Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXD-Qwt11PQ.
4. Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *