Get Real: Als—Fair in Love and Writing

Get Real with Carla Stockton

Entry #1: Als—Fair in Love and Writing

Welcome to Get Real with Carla Stockton, a column examining real people, places and events in and around New York.

To begin, I’ve chosen to take a brief look at formidable New York personality Hilton Als and his commencement speech to the School of the Arts Class of 2014 on May 21 (it’s here, in its entirety:http://arts.columbia.edu/video/graduation/2014 ). Als, who prides himself on constructing genre, on inventing personae for art world luminaries, is as real as it gets. He’s a primal paradox, a fascination.

Curtesy of Hilton Als, Rich Dikeman, and Celia Greene

Hilton Als—Curtesy of Hilton Als, Rich Dikeman, and Celia Greene

Hilton Als is now, as he has been since 1994, a staff writer and arts critic at the New Yorker Magazine; he survived a Brooklyn childhood, graduated from Columbia University’s School of General Studies, wrote for the Village Voice and Vibe. Reading Hilton Als’ work can be frustrating.  Or exhilarating. Or both. He tells truths we may not want to hear, shows us how we look in the bullshit-obliterating mirror he holds up to us, provides a kind of skewed compass with which to find our way around what Sam Lipsyte, introducing Als, called our, “a messy, raggedy world.” Hilton Als is opinionated and saucey, and his views are always couched in poetic lyricism that would make Walt Whitman swoon.  He understands – here comes another Lipsyte-ism – that writing is largely performance, both celebration and suppression thereof.

At his best, Als’ voice is rousing. He gets and articulates the writer’s mind better than most. He recently said to Christopher Bollen at Interview Magazine, “I think that I live in writing. . . . I don’t make a lot of money, but I get to have freedom.”  Then he went on to admit – and this is the part I liked best – “I really respond to love. It’s really corny to say, but if you say, ‘I loved that, and this is how it could be better,’ I’ll love you.” Who among us writers feels empowered to write without that love? Who among us hears it nearly often enough?

Yet Als extends to us at the SOA a kind of special admiration. “You have already conferred on yourselves the permission to be artists, to be thinkers, to be.”  It’s permission he fought hard to give himself. “It takes a long time,” he said, “to step up to the welcome table when you’re used to standing at the sink of making do.” He came to Columbia to study Art History, and he’s glad he did, but he didn’t dare then to imagine that he could make a living, make a life in the arts.

Right now, decompressing from a long semester of rushing to meet deadlines, struggling to impress myself, my peers, my professors, I am inspired by Als. This is where life is REAL. It’s risky, yeah. But it’s risky in a way that makes it deliciously dangerous, irresistible.

Like my cohorts at the SOA, I’m an outsider, the best kind of outsider. And we are not alone. Like Als said in his commencement presentation,  “. . . . all artists feel other. There is not an artist on God’s green earth who ever feels like he has been invited to the prom. It’s in our collective DNA to stand to the left or outside of life’s fray in our tennis shoes, in our painters’ smocks, in our directors’ caps, in our moth-eaten writers’ sweaters awash in memory even as it becomes that in the just-now past.“

Als reminds me that with the privilege comes responsibility.  We have entrusted ourselves to record memory as we perceive it, and we have enlisted educators who “understand the humility of creation and something more – how to coax you into greater accuracy.” We tell our stories, share our understanding not only because we want to but because we must.

Here at the Journal, we provide a platform, a stage for writers beyond our rarefied sanctum, writers who, like us, examine – here’s a great Als allusion to Truman Capote – “our ghosts in the sunlight.” We share the performance even when we don’t share the same point of view, and we revel in one another’s fellowship.

It’s an honor to be here on this dais today as I launch my column. I hope you, my readers and fellow writers, will share the column and our wonderful Catch & Release Journal Online with anyone who can read. Further, I hope you will invite submissions to the Journal from anyone who can write.

Please send me your love, which tells me how I can do things better.  I welcome comments addended to my entries as openly as the Journal welcomes entries from the insightful, murderously creative world of artists that surrounds us.

Let’s all take on Hilton Als’ commencement spirit, and let’s stay “connected to other people who are as moved by the enterprise of creating” as we are now.  In art, Als noted, we create and find the shorelines, the places where our forebears can gather, with us, in the sunlight, giving context to the craziness around us.

I am grateful I am here and even more grateful that you are.  I’ll be back every other Thursday.  Next time:  All the Way, now on Broadway, starring Brian Cranston and written by Robert Schenkkan.


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Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan.

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