What’s the Buzz, Buzz?

March 28, 2013 § 28 Comments


buzzBrevity’s Managing Editor Sarah Einstein asks a few questions about Buzz Bissinger’s recent “active addiction” memoir essay in GQ, and how readers should understand his public confession:

“In the past few years, I’ve bought eighty-one leather jackets. Dozens of boots and leather gloves. I’ve purchased pants that cost $5,000. I own a $22,000 coat. This winter I took a tour of Milan’s Fashion Week (all expenses paid by Gucci, in appreciation of my many, many purchases), where I spent tens of thousands more and began to seriously grapple, once and for all, with a compulsion that could cost me more than just my life savings. My name is Buzz Bissinger. I am 58 years old, the best-selling author of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ father of three, husband. And I am a shopaholic.” — Buzz Bissinger

The Internet is a-twitter with talk about Buzz Bissinger’s essay, “My Gucci Addiction,” published by GQ just recently. This is confessional writing at it’s most, well, confessional. Bissinger details not only his shopping addiction, which is itself almost mind-bendingly self-indulgent (a $22,000 coat?), but also his struggles with sexuality, marriage, and bipolar disorder.

In a statement to NBC, Bissinger says he wrote the essay “because it was the only way I knew of coming to terms and getting the help I am getting now. I have no regrets about what I wrote but I also have nothing to add.” Bissinger has, according the not-always-reliable Internet, entered rehab for his shopping addiction since the publication of the piece.

This has us wondering about the purpose of audience in addiction memoir. If Bissinger wrote this piece not to communicate something to his readers, but instead to communicate his own desperation and need for intervention to the people around him who could intervene where the reader can’t, then how are we as an audience to understand it? As spectacle? As plea? As a step toward accountability? When the addiction memoir is written by an active addict, what is the ethical reader response?

We’d like to know what you think. Please respond in the comments below.

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§ 28 Responses to What’s the Buzz, Buzz?

  • I was in a workshop with a woman writing about her, let’s just say chemical, addiction. It became apparent the issue was so recent it might even be ongoing. She didn’t seem ready to write about it except possibly as a personal therapeutic tool, but then that is just my opinion. The writing was confusing, but maybe she could use it later, when she is ready. Her comments on other people’s writing seemed less than fully useful.

  • In general, as a reader, I need to feel that the subject has some relevance to my experiences in life to enjoy the piece. I’ve read books about addiction I don’t have and still can somehow relate to them. This one I don’t know about. It seems too self-centered and indulgent.,

  • We, as human beings, are always in the messy throes. Though the writer is writing from this present day perspective, this expanded ‘now,’ I don’t think we have more responsibility than if we were reading any other kind of piece. Interesting, though, that this question arises with these confessional pieces. In my opinion our discomfort with honesty, with dysfunction, with life issues, is the question here. Why does our skin crawl a little when we see someone in the so-called throes of addictive behavior? Grief, doesn’t really provoke the same feeling of responsibility. Neither does confusion, frustration or disappointment. I think addiction bothers us because the experience is so close to the bone of human experience, some kind of suffering, that is.

    Somehow we’ve fallen into this notion that when human strife is captured in prose, it is not supposed to be ongoing. We are supposed to be living on the other side, in the Heaven of the healed life. We are suppose to have category, a criteria lifted from the DSM IV, and laugh about ourselves later from the jaded perspective of sobriety.

    I would suggest, since most addictions thrive in secrecy, the publication of the piece is a graduation of sorts, and at time with consumerism is a valid response to depression, etc it is timely window into how one deals, or doesn’t deal, with emotion. Addiction thrives on depression, last statistics on depression suggested that up to 8% of Americans struggled with addiction, many vulnerable, to addictive and compulsive urges because shopping and wine drinking and pot smoking and eating cupcakes make us feel better, right?

    Memoirs that chronicle rape, child abuse, bad parenting, might be written from this “Look at me, I’m okay perspective,” but we all know the healing is somewhat of a constructed artifice. You’re never really okay after being dragged into the dark alley, but hey, its the “not okayness” that makes us interesting, isn’t it? From the unhealed place we go on stupid hikes, take stupid drugs and date stupid people. This is life, baby. The take away from this piece is in the candid reflection of addiction. So this particular writer hasn’t gotten to the other side of this issue, does this matter? The question arises much stronger when the writing is bad. But I have read plenty of bad writing from the so called, “healed” perspective that has little to do with art, so as far as I am concerned the writer’s skill paves the entry into the subject.

    As to the question, what do we do with confessional pieces like this? I think it is the same we would do with all good memoir. We fall in. We writhe a little. Later, we pick up the beautiful shoes we really want to purchase but can’t really afford, and then we our mind wanders over this beautiful little piece, and we hesitate just because we can’t help but stop, and because true stories inform and cause that little ‘stop time’ in our own life. For a brief moment, we are less alone, less isolated, we connected to others not by love (which is so flimsy anyway) but by our addictions, our compulsions, our desperate attempts to feel ‘better” towards an escape hatch.

    • Janice Gary says:

      Well said, Mishele. I can’t help but notice the word “confessional” popping up here and in this case, it fits. It irks me when memoirs are put under the big confessional umbrella when, as one my students have said, “Isn’t confession saying “I did something wrong,” as opposed to “something that happened to us?” OK. That’s a sore spot with me, but I’m thinking when it comes to writing about addiction, yes, there is a confessional quality, especially in a piece like this that writes about giving in to baser impulses without any redemptive or transformation narrative to the story.

    • Excellent perspective here, Mishele. Thanks for posting.

    • Perfect. I am an alcoholic and haven’t touched liquor in 14 years. But I will always be on this side of confession and in the moment with my addiciton. It’s ongoing, for the rest of my life.People shy away from my story( and me), even if I tell it to remind myself publicly of who I am and where I came from, or to lend a guiding narrative to another person whom I think needs a push in the right direction.Addiction is a very uncomfortable subject, because as I have learned, , most of us have one, and are no where near to admitting it.

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    I haven’t read it, but there is a rich history of public celebrity “confessions” breaking the cultural ice around addictions. Perhaps the stigma around alcohol/drugs has lessened enough in the years since Betty Ford spoke out, but this kind of shopping may be helpful to read about for someone else (without celebrity) in the same position.

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    Well said Michele!

    • Tim Elhajj says:

      Of course I meant to type Mishele.

      It’s so cool that so many of us come here to post our thoughts on memoir. I was just writing someone that every time I think I know something about how to write memoir, someone comes along and gives me something new to think about. And more often then not, that someone shows up here on the Brevity blog.

      Thanks for creating this post Sarah!

  • Sarah says:

    Mishele, well said indeed!

  • Cathy Day says:

    Mishele Maron, I think you should try to publish that comment. It’s so articulate. Much of our thinking about memoir is based on the assumption that you should write with the “voice of experience,” not the “voice of innocence.” (Sue William Silverman’s terms from FEARLESS CONFESSIONS). https://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/craft/craft_voice.htm Mr. Bissinger hasn’t yet reached the “experience” stage yet, but you make a great argument regarding whether he necessarily needs to. I’ll be very interested to know Silverman’s take on this, given her work about her own addiction.

  • I haven’t read his piece (not sure I could stomach it), but it seems to me Buzz’s addiction might be to affluence and attention. GQ is his enabler, offering up a space for his ritualized humiliation-as-performance “memoir” mainly because he’s a wealthy man with some modicum of fame (however fleeting). . . but maybe I’m just defensive because I’m also a writer and also addicted to leather pants and, even worse, to the increasingly expensive and hard-to-find, foie gras. I will soon enter a rehab program called “The Life of Nearly Every Other Writer on the Planet” where I’m forced to give up my addiction to leather pants and fattened duck liver and required instead to buy bulk chicken, giant bags of broccoli, and cargo shorts at Costco.

  • Sonya Lea says:

    Bissinger is in his step work in this piece, clearly outlining the nature of his addiction, and what is at the root of it. And we, as Americans, are not immune to either capitalistic excesses or addictions. Our response as readers might be to ask, “What’s my addiction, and how am I telling the truth about it?”

    As a memoir writer, and essayist, I think the piece Bissinger wrote is sensational yet doesn’t quite arrive in the level of self awareness that truly makes a work beautiful. The best thing we can do with our stories in process sometimes is to let them sit until we know what they are about. I did this when I wrote about my husband’s brain injury that took the memories of his life. Sarah Polley just directed a documentary about her family she let percolate for years while she found her way in it. When authors don’t have the clarity to make these choices, and their kindreds can’t intervene, then editors may be the ones who need to say, ‘This needs to rest.’ And GQ, like many publications, cannot do that because sensationalism is their addiction. Like Bissinger, they have a compulsive desire that has to be fulfilled by not greater, more meaningful stories, but loud, showy ones. Thus, our current memoir dilemma of drama over substance.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    When I was a teen, I read a spooky story about ghouls that followed traffic accidents and swarmed toward them in order to soak in their macabre energy. Some people look at all concern for tragedy in a similar way, assuming that confession brings out the ghoulish in us. However, there is an equally valid, opposite point of view that says that in tragic circumstances, our hearts are moved to compassion. In that world-view, tragedy brings out the highest aspects of the human condition. When you see a crowd around a drug addict, a shopaholic, an accident victim, or a memoir reader, which type of audience do you see? The way you describe their motivation probably depends on the way you construct human nature.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • “…have gone back and forth about Buzz Bissinger’s extended “shopaholic” confession in GQ. This is either one of the most subtly skillful and elaborate April Fool’s Day hoaxes anyone has ever pulled off … or one of the most unintentionally embarrassing, you-have-to-turn-away-because-it’s-cruel-to-keep-watching acts of unaware self-humiliation anyone has ever committed.” — James Fallows, http://www.theatlantic.com

    • After reading both the GQ essay and James Fallows’ response, I have to say I’m left only mildly interested in the whole thing. The most compelling question arising from this discussion may be, How do we readers respond to confessional writing? Why do we stop seeing the piece of writing as its own entity and instead focus solely on the person behind it? Why do we stop asking what is (and isn’t) working with the narrative?

  • I’ve never considered before that my memoir, LOADED, is written from the persona of the “active addict.” I recall being insistent with my editor that the memoir not conclude with resolution and dissolve into the “self-help” section but rather reflect the universality of addiction, that we’re all addicted to something, someone, somewhere, and we work to balance that weight, to stay steady. This post sent me to my copy of LOADED and its last page, to remind myself how I chose to end my addiction memoir:

    “I see my drinking like my grip on Indie that day as she dangled in the air. I can keep a firm hold on it, moderating my consumption and drinking only a glass or two at night, or I can ease it down, allowing the weight of it to increase until it becomes too heavy and I just let go, not considering the damage caused by the fall. For now, I’m like the farthest planet from the sun, because I know what the debris looks like at the bottom, how much damage I can do when I surrender to the weight of wine. I’m going to keep holding on. I promised Indie that I would.”

    • Sarah says:

      Jill,

      LOADED is a great counterpoint, because its so full of insight and self-awareness; clearly, it is speaking to the reader as a reader. What struck me as more difficult about Bissinger’s piece is first, that it does not seem to be written to the reader and, second, that Bissinger himself says the impetus to write it wasn’t to reach the reader but to disrupt his own behavior. Its more Charlie-Sheen-as-Rockstar-from-Mars than it is LOADED, I would argue, and so there is at least the question of whether or not the reader should turn away from it. (Though, above, Mishele has convinced me that’s an overly prim reaction.) I never felt as if I should close LOADED as a matter of decency; in fact, the opposite was true… I felt more equipped to be decent after reading it.

      Sarah

    • Jill, I recently placed third in a Brevity contest( week of march 11) on this very subject. The 500 word essay is called Distilled Memory. Very similar indeed!

      • Ryder,

        And it’s a lovely piece. I admire how you use the “crook of his elbow,” “the heap of arms and legs,” “fingers tickling,” “his big hands,” and even the sun’s “arms reaching out across the field” to emphasize the ways in which we all hold on to each other for dear life in such precarious moments. A beautiful flash.

        Jill

  • One other interesting aspect of this story is how it relates to celebrity culture. If Buzz Bissinger weren’t Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, the book, and the TV show, would this even be a story GQ would run, and would the reader find it of interest? Would we worry about him more or less?

  • Danielle Hughes says:

    I believe it serves as a cautionary tale. I believe the article serves to push other shopaholics to get help. Even our most creative and highly celebrated writers have flaws, which is something that has been on display since the begininng of writing. How is this different than one who writes about their struggles with sexuality or depression?

  • lee2277 says:

    For when we are completely defeated, we somehow need to know we are not alone.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    When I reach for my fifth cookie, I listen to the exhausting inner debate, “not this time” versus “just this once,” and watch my hand move from plate to mouth, as I line up my neurons toward the sixth. Every compulsion, whether crystal meth, or buying too many shoes, or checking too many times to see if the door is locked, or having unwanted thoughts raises the existential question “who is in charge here?” If we can’t empathetically seek to understand each others’ compulsions, how can we ever hope to understand our own.

    Jerry

  • Doesn’t the memoir as a form inevitably devolve into the train-wreck/survival/redemptive recovery narrative? Sex, alcohol, drugs, shopping … all of it serving as visual indicators to our individual frailties. Personally, I’d rather imply that in the gait of my prose than spraypaint it across my forehead.

    • jerrywaxler says:

      Nicely put. Yes, life does devolve into a crappy narrative. We’ve certainly all had times when the narrative of life seems useless, pitiable, “signifying nothing” – That’s exactly what I love about memoir. By allowing us to shape memory into a story, memoir provides a much more interesting container for life than the devolved narrative we love to hate. In fact this anti-devolutionary effect of memoirs provides its most exciting feature. Perhaps it is an acquired taste? If you’ve never experienced this effect for yourself, you may be on the outside, not understanding why anyone would bother. But once you’ve tried it, and experienced the uplifting shaping of a crafted narrative of self, the form becomes addictive.

      Jerry

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