Oprah, James Frey and Lessons Learned

A few days ago I watched Oprah re-interview James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. To say they have a rocky past is an understatement, but this interview was based in forgiveness with an emphasis on growth and lessons learned.

I remember watching the original interview with James Frey in 2006; it made me so uncomfortable and so sad. I’m not a fan of seeing anyone publically disgraced and ridiculed, especially when the mistake is so human, so common.

But I’m so glad I watched it, because it became one of my greatest teachings.

James Frey’s fate came down to two words, one of them true (novel) one of them not (memoir). The significance of his writing wasn’t questioned, the way it helped people wasn’t questioned; it was just a choice between words.

And unfortunately he agreed with the powers that be and chose the word that was not true. Under the guidance of those that said they were helping, he chose the word that would “sell” the book.

I think about how many of us make choices based on what will “sell.” Not just the work we do, but also the things we say or the things we don’t say.

Many of us play it safe and follow the road most traveled because we want to be accepted. We stay quiet, agree with the group, and we don’t speak our mind.

Instead of finding our own path we blend in with the masses, but ironically, we often end up feeling more alone.

We fear the discomfort of being different, but then silently sit in the discomfort of not being recognized.

I started putting my first book together in 2008, and at certain points in the process I questioned my writing and the decision to share such a deep part of myself. I contemplated changing some of my stories – I thought about making them more mainstream or more typical.

But then I would think about James Frey. I’d think about how he had promoted his book, knowing it was not completely true, and how he got caught up in the marketing machine and lost himself somewhere in the process.

His experience inspired me to stand by my sometimes simple and spiritual stories. They may not follow a certain tradition of writing and they may not be great works of literature, but they are indeed mine.

They are an expression of my thoughts and feelings, a reflection of my life at that moment in time.

I remember the process I went through to find an editor – so many of them insisted on changing my words and ideas, they deleted full paragraphs, they even disposed of entire chapters in the name of creating “what people wanted.”

I value constructive criticism, and like all writers I need a smart editor with great suggestions, but much of their feedback went beyond my comfort level.

If I made all of these changes and agreed with all of their suggestions, it would no longer be my book, it would be theirs.

And again, I thought of James Frey. How his book defied convention, how he didn’t use traditional structure or grammar in A Million Little Pieces. How he found his own way of communicating, his own voice that he wanted to share.

And really, that was always my underlying intention – I just wanted to share. When I dreamed of my first book I had a vision, I could see it my head, laid out as a series of stories with no obvious common thread, but each of them with underlying universal principles and lessons.

It was uneducated and risky, but it was also real and it felt good. And that is why I write, because for me, writing feels good.

I still consider myself a novice, I am constantly learning about tone, style, grammar, you name it. But this doesn’t keep me from writing – I have no choice but to write.

I write first thing when I wake up, I write for this blog, I write books, I write articles, and I write motivational sentences and words and place them around my house.

Writing is the way I process my life and my experiences; it’s the way I remember who I am.

I remember when Oprah interviewed writer J.K. Rowling and asked her what she “truly believed”, she responded, “Sometimes I know what I believe because of what I have written. Oddly, if you’d asked me before I wrote it ‘what did I believe’ I maybe couldn’t have told you.”

This I understand. Sometimes I am unsure of what I believe or what I should do, and then I read what I have written. My writing comes from a deeper part of myself, the part that knows we are all connected; the part that knows life is about relationships, love and learning.

For me, writing is a route to true self. And it was James Frey who taught me to never stray from this path.

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