“Immature poets imitate; great poets steal.” So goes T.S. Eliot’s explanation of the difference between merely borrowing something and creatively transforming it. Beg, Borrow, Steal, Michael Greenberg’s collection of personal essays about his life as a writer in New York, suggests a variation on Eliot’s adage: Forget about neat distinctions between who begs, who borrows, and who steals. The accomplished writer has to do all three.
Beg, Borrow, Steal collects 44 essays from Greenberg’s Freelance column for the London Times Literary Supplement, his series of literary dispatches from New York. Each essay tells a personal story in 1200 words, just enough room for a set-up, some exposition, and a well-paced scene. Their effect is best summed up in the direction Greenberg’s TLS editor offered at the start of the project. Each piece, he said, should “spill a drop of blood.”
The collection contains stories with unlikely O. Henry turns (“A Tailor’s Fortune” and “$493 in Singles and Fives”), fascinating historical pieces about New York (“‘Negros Burial Ground'” and “Hart Island”), and essays that bear more directly on Greenberg’s long struggle, as a writer of little means, to build a literary career.
New York, naturally, provides a great setting for the story. Greenberg attends high school in the Village with the children of blacklisted leftists. He lives in a public housing project where Chinese restaurant workers sleep side by side in red blankets on the floors of small apartments. A ride in the motorman’s car of a subway train on the Pelham Bay line gives Greenberg an unseen view of the city, with diamond switches on the tracks and graffiti in hidden corners of the underground flashing by.
That long dark journey might be a metaphor for Greenberg’s own. There are hard times in the Bronx and on the Lower East Side. Greenberg meets failure as a street peddler, a cab driver, and a waiter. His writing career never gets off the ground. Yet Greenberg retains his spirit, relating his adventures with great sympathy and style, not to mention a comic’s perfect timing. His book is a pleasure to read.
He signs on, for example, to ghost-write the tell-all memoir of a former Manhattan restaurateur, only to discover that she doesn’t have a decent story to tell. Worse, she can’t even cook. The chef, it turns out, was her husband, and he’s serving eighteen months for tax evasion. All Greenberg gets out of the deal is his hourly rate and some grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in tin foil.
In a later piece, he sends the completed draft of his novel to one of his heroes, the editor Ted Solotaroff, who gets back to him right away. “This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction,” Solotaroff writes. “Good luck finding it a home.”
The problem is that there is no clear path to literary success, no way to know what you’re supposed to do. Indeed, Greenberg seems to regard the very idea of a literary “career” with wry hopelessness. When an MFA student, who has dropped by to inquire about renting Greenberg’s writing studio, lists her literary accomplishments to him, Greenberg seems taken aback. “She recites her credentials,” he says, “in the way of one who approaches writing as if it were a rational, upwardly mobile career.”
And so it goes. After decades of odd jobs and dubious literary exploits, success finally arrives with Hurry Down Sunshine, Greenberg’s touching memoir of his daughter Sally’s descent into madness. The book, which Other Press published last year, is a harrowing and beautiful work of art. Its publication secured Greenberg’s literary reputation, sent him on book tour, and provides charming fodder for the collection’s final essays. (Vintage will publish the paperback of Hurry Down Sunshine on September 9, the same day Other Press will publish Beg, Borrow, Steal.)
By the end of Beg, Borrow, Steal Greenberg has found, in his daughter’s story and his Freelance columns, material that is both dangerous and close to the heart. He has found the stories he was meant to tell.
Yet even this success comes at a cost. In the title essay of the collection, Greenberg writes about the trouble with taking literary material from personal experience. The story involves Eric, a former landlord who spent years sharing his draft novel-in-progress with Greenberg, only to learn, when he read Hurry Down Sunshine, that Greenberg never took him seriously. In trying to work out whether he betrayed a friend, Greenberg notes how closely he listened to Eric when they talked. Close enough, he writes, “to steal a piece of his soul.”
Michael Greenberg took time out from his pre-publication schedule for Beg, Borrow, Steal to answer some questions:
The Rumpus: What inspired you to compile this collection? What larger story did you want these essays to tell?
Michael Greenberg: I always intended the stories to be together. In a way they came out of me as a single narrative, the portrait of a writer’s precarious, unpredictable existence. What defines the writer’s life more than anything is a kind of omnivorous curiosity. Literary life doesn’t take place in the salon or at a cocktail party or workshop; it occurs wherever a writer happens to be, usually in the most “unliterary” places. What I hope readers take from this book is a sense of openness towards experience, be it mundane or exotic – the immense pleasure to be had in unpeeling the mystery of oneself through others.
Rumpus: Can you pick a favorite essay in the collection and tell us what drew you to its subject?
Greenberg: One story I have special affection for is “A Tailor’s Fortune”, about my neighbor in a poor housing project, an Auschwitz survivor who worked as a tailor in the basement of Macy’s department store. He wanted to leave me his life’s saving so I could write with less worries. The challenge was to give it the spare, honest, unsentimental dignity that it deserved.
Rumpus: Your editor at the TLS limited you to 1200 words. Were you ever tempted to expand any of these stories into a longer form?
Greenberg: Almost never. The form became like a second skin. It felt just right. On the few occasions when I did try to expand a story, I found it would lose some of its magic.
Rumpus: What responsibility do you owe to your subjects? What, if anything, do you owe to how someone may feel when they see themselves, as you have put it, “as a manipulated object in the drama of their own life”?
Greenberg: This is a question I wrestle with all the time. Most people haven’t asked to be written about. It can be disturbing to see the reflection of yourself, a mere flake of your true being, objectified in print. It’s a very strange and unique phenomenon. People feel robbed in some essential way, even when no ill will is intended. Not long ago, my former wife sent me the manuscript of a book she had written about a period in our lives when we were in our early twenties and living in South America. I realized I was getting the news about myself when she complained that I was uncomfortable when we were close, and could manage intimacy only in brief spells, when my guard was down. My recollection is slightly different, and I found myself silently defending myself, but getting nowhere. That’s the curse of being written about: you can’t reply. The writer has to forge ahead anyway. It’s one of several diabolical aspects of the job.
Rumpus: There are suggestions, in interviews you’ve done and in the stories in Beg, Borrow, Steal, that for many years you struggled as a fiction writer. Did you find your voice as a nonfiction writer? Why or why not?
Greenberg: It’s a funny paradox. I learned to write by toiling away at fiction for years in obscurity. When the time came to write Hurry Down Sunshine all those thousands of hours of work were there inside me, ready to be put to use. Everything coalesced around this true story, perhaps because it meant so much to me and I felt a keen pressure to do it justice. The writer, like everyone else, is at the mercy of what life happens to throw at him.