Stripper-Turned-Writer (11.08)

If you’re a writer, particularly a screenwriter, you’d have to be living in a box not to know the story of Diablo Cody. Stripper in Minneapolis blogs about her life as a stripper. Producer/agent/publisher guy finds said blog, and turns it into a book, and then convinces stripper to write a screenplay. Jason Reitman gets screenplay, and they make Juno. Stripper wins Academy Award.

Juno was one of my favorite movies of that year, and I’m totally agree with the Oscar win. But I didn’t even know about the book until I saw it in some random pile at my brother’s house a few days ago. But being a fan of Juno, and of strippers in general (not to mention being someone who still has a yet-to-be-finished screenplay that’s set in that particular scene), I had to read it.

The book is called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and I read the whole thing in one sitting, in a marathon reading session that lasted from about 11 pm until 2:30 this morning. Rather than being a story about the “girl gone wrong,” it’s more of a “fish out of water” tale, as this desperately conservative (or so she would have us believe) 24-year-old suburbanite steps into her quarterlife crisis, and with it a seedy strip club on amateur night. Over the next year she hits an upscale gentleman’s club, an all-nude hustler bar, the peep show at a porn shop, back to a strip club, and finally a phone sex line, before it was finally time for her to call it quits for good.

One of the markers of Cody’s writing style is that it’s incredibly witty. The sort of thing I used to envy when I was … well, about that age, and convinced that the deeper you delved into the thesaurus, the more idioms you used, the more obscure and creative your analogies, the better the writing. One such perpetrator who comes to mind is the curmudgeon John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman. (Side note: When I was in college I wrote a poem about a hyperbolically precocious squirrel. I came across that poem a few days ago digging through old boxes, and I still like it. But my favorite poem I ever wrote was called “From the Journal of a 13th Century Peasant”, which consisted of the title, my name, and a blank page.)

At some point I read an article that argued that good writers don’t need to call attention to their own writing in that way, and it cured me forever of that ambition. Every now and then I write something that violates the principle, like my recent short story, an attempt at Poe-esque American Gothic, where I literally spent hours in a thesaurus picking out every obscure word I could shoehorn into my story, and then hours more pulling all those words out. But I still like coining new words and phrases (if you can understand what it means, then by definition it’s a word, dammit!), and do so regularly.

But I no longer feel the need to litter everything I write with obscure references to popular culture or ancient classics. (In an interview with Letterman, Cody refers to herself as a naked Margaret Mead. The audience laughed and applauded. Cody mugged for them. I looked up who the heck Margaret Mead is.)

Regardless, there’s no denying that Candy Girl is exceptionally well told, because Cody has more than just a keen wit, she has an excellent grasp on story telling. This book includes every structural beat you would expect from a well-told story: solid turning points, as she goes from one club to the next along her questionable career path; a midpoint when she quits, but then just has to return because she can’t help herself; rising stakes as she does more and more, going from the partially-clothed to the all-nude to masturbating in front of fetishists, until she finally found herself as the Grade A stripper who took home the gold; and then the need to quit and exit the industry entirely.

Through all of it, the insights are candid; erotic but grotesque: the unmistakable stain spreading through the patrons’ shorts, the declining responsiveness of her genitals, the need to be better than everyone else for just one night, the power through all the objectification. And for that, we love the author, because she gives us, as all great writers should, a window into something we couldn’t possibly have known otherwise.

I like that she addresses, in the conclusion, her motives for doing this and the motives of most of the girls who take this career path. I’ve recently become fascinated with the idea of exploiting stereotypes to call attention to them and offer a contrapuntal alternative. And this book does all of the above.

So all in all, a great read, and one that has me respect this Oscar-winning writer all the more.

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