Thursday, August 12, 2010

In defense of Elizabeth Gilbert and "Eat, Pray, Love"

Earlier this morning I got into a strange, pointless debate on Twitter regarding Elizabeth Gilbert and her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love." What started me off on this topic was the backlash that has been aimed lately at the book and now the movie of the book (which I haven't seen.) What is curious is that a lot of the print backlash (which is limited to a single argument/complaint: "its all about her, not about me") comes from the same sources that embraced and promoted the book to begin with.

The problem with this line of critique is that the book "Eat, Pray, Love" never pretended to be about anything other than Liz Gilbert. That this became a phenomenon is not the fault of the author, nor is she responsible for the thousands of women who have decided that they should follow her path to find themselves.

I should disclose: I know Liz Gilbert, or, I should say, I knew her. Back in the 90s, she was a frequent reader at the KGB Bar reading series that I curated. She hadn't yet published a book, but her short stories, and her journalism, were great pieces that lent themselves well to being read to a crowd. I was particularly taken with her non-fiction, because she always found a way of using it to critique herself as much as her subject; to me, this seemed a fair approach. She was also willing to share stories about her writing career: her embarrassment at having an editor point out her writing tics, her success at accidentally resubmitting a rejected story to one magazine, which found the unchanged draft suddenly perfect.

When the KGB Bar Reader came out, we did our first radio interview together and complimented each other on our practiced eloquence and charm. Every Halloween, she and her husband hosted a huge party in their small apartment overlooking the parade. These social occasions always seemed less fun to me; this might have been my own social awkwardness, but in retrospect I also wondered if it was because she wasn't really having as much fun as she always claimed.

We fell out of touch around the same time my collection of stories came out; later, reading her memoir, I realized that this was probably around the same time her life was falling apart. Just before its publication, I interviewed Liz for Time Out New York. We actually both had memoirs coming out, and although it never made it into the printed piece, we talked about how strange it was, how unimaginable, that the two of us, of all people, had memoirs coming out (The Dogs Who Found Me was due out in a few months). But we both felt really good about our books; in fact, we both felt completely confident in what we had written, and unconcerned about how they might be received. This was a completely new and liberating experience for ourselves. I remember saying something along the lines of "I feel like people will really like my book, if they read it. I don't know how many people will find it, but I feel like it has good things to say." Liz felt the same about her own.

Of course, my book was being published on a much smaller scale. The initial printing was about 2000 copies. The orders were even less. Fourteen printings later, it has about 60-70,000 copies in print. So I feel like a also know a little bit about the frenzy that comes when a book exceeds its audience. As a writer, you feel an obligation to the readers who have found your book valuable. You hear from people who are grateful that you have given them, in some way, a voice. So, you keep talking. You keep granting interviews. You keep going on reading tours. Because you know you probably aren't going to have this chance again, this opportunity to say that there are a few things that matter to you, this chance to let other people speak alongside you.

And with that comes the growing number of voices who ask, quite reasonably, "Who do you think you are?" You can see this effect particularly on places like Amazon, where the growing number of reviews include people who feel the need to take the book down a notch or two, who slight it for being about a flawed person, who claim, in some cases, to be a better person than the author, a more worthy subject for examination. What has happened is the book has reached beyond its actual audience into a readership for which it was never really intended.

And that is when you realize how very lucky you are.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The latest on my heart, my pacemaker and incompetence at Tulane Medical

You may remember that a few months back, in April, I had a little heart incident and ended up at the nightmarish Tulane Hospital, where they refused to release me but also didn't have time to treat me. Eventually, I called a lawyer and they finally found the time to do the relatively simple procedure of switching my old pacemaker for a new one. After I blogged about the experience, I began to hear from former and current employees, all of whom confirmed that the poor treatment I received was not only a violation of basic standards, including HIPA, but also par for the course at Tulane. In fact, within a week of my release, the substandard "over-flow" area that I had been trapped in was cleared out--but only for a day, to keep an accreditation team from seeing what goes on.

Meanwhile, employees concerned about losing their jobs had a series of meetings with me in which they apologized for the care I'd received. The head of one department asked me if I would come in and talk to the staff and part of a training, so that they would understand what not to do. This seemed like a strange request, but I agreed to it anyway, because I was pretty certain the woman had no intention of contacting me again. She just didn't want to deal with a potential lawsuit. And, of course, I was right. She walked away feeling that she'd covered her ass and needed be bothered with keeping her word.

Another thing happened immediately after leaving the hospital: my pacemaker began pacing my diaphragm instead of my heart. I knew why: they had an inexperienced staff member insert the leads in my chest and one was so misplaced that the supervising doctor instructed him to removed it and try again. Apparently the lead was still misplaced. But when I returned to have this corrected, everyone insisted it was normal and fine, and they lowered the voltage of the pacemaker so that the diaphragn wouldn't be bothered anymore. I asked if it was still able to pace my heart, and the doctors assured me it was fine.

Last month I went for a check up with my new cardiologist, who had already expressed befuddlement at the records from my Tulane stay and the mountain of medications that they had put me on. Now, three months after implantation, they had a Medtronic rep in to check the pacemaker's record of activity and other settings. Ooops, it turns out that it wasn't capturing on one side! Why? Because the voltage had been turned down.

Anyone else have any stories about treatment at Tulane that they'd like to share?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Is it time for school to start already?

I continue to promise more frequent postings here, but I've been so busy trying to get a few things done before the end of the summer that I haven't had time to think--and I hate to post things without thinking. So, what have I been up to? Trying to work on a book proposal that is outlined by the major events of my past three years--yet with three deaths, one near death, a mugging, a skin graft, several murders, a shooting, and a few other crisis, it is a struggle to keep it from becoming melodramatic.

I've also written a few short pieces, including one coming up in Best Friends magazine and another for Salon.com. And I don't know that there could be two more different pieces of writing.

And, of course, I've been up to my ears in dogs, including Bonnie, who came from a dogfighting bust in Tallahassee and appears to be blind from either a blow to the head, or early disease. You can watch her playing with Zephyr (sort of) below: