Things I learnt from James Frey

Back in December when I wrote my Books That Changed My Life post, I put this book in there. I was fresh off the back of the last page and my heart was pounding, tears rolling down my cheeks. I was enthralled.

And now, six months later, after reading it for the second time, I feel as if it needs it’s own post.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey is one of the most wonderful stories I have ever read. Which sounds strange considering the story content is hard to deal with, something that is so far beyond my comprehension and is generally quite sad. It tells of Frey’s battle with addiction, rehabilitation and for lack of a better word, will to stay alive.

The book became the pinpoint of a butt load of controversy after being marketed as autobiographical, and then, after it’s release, some sleuthy internet detectives (aka people with too much time on their hands) found holes in major plot points.

For me, that didn’t matter. The thought that anyone can remember their lives word for word and moment for moment is ridiculous anyway. And in Frey’s case, with the intoxication running through his body, it must have been 100 times harder than any sober person can even begin to imagine. When I was reading the book, I didn’t think the author was unreliable. It didn’t even matter that some things may have been exaggerated. Or even bold faced lies. Because the entire time I was reading I thought holy shit this story/life/confession is so compelling.

And so I present five things I learnt from James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.

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One: There is no wrong way to write.
Frey has a very unique style of writing. He is what I like to think of as the epitome of verisimilitude – the appearance of being true or real. Yes, his style is not what we so often describe as “normal”. He doesn’t use any speech based punctuation, his sentences vary from singular words to full paragraphs. Structure is sometimes all over the place. BUT, it works. It works for the story. We’re hearing from someone on their last legs. Someone who wakes up on a plane in a drug and alcohol infused mess and who then winds up in rehab trying to stay clean. This is someone who’s mind cannot think straight. Who is going through such an internal battle. It works. And it’s beautifully refreshing. For someone who has never thought of their own writing style as particularly “normal”, it was like meeting myself in a completely different way. It gave me confidence in my own writing. And I will always hold Mr Frey up high for that.

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Two: Nothing is off limits when it comes to understanding.
Like I said in the intro, the subject matter of this book is so far beyond my comprehension. Drugs have never been of any interest to me. I’ve never done anything. I’ve barely even smoked a regular cigarette! But Frey’s storytelling techniques make the using, abusing and dependency on drugs, and alcohol understandable. It also 100% solidifies my non-interest in wanting to do any drugs, but for a novice like me, I feel like Frey threw a wink in my direction. Yes, the majority of the “explanations” come from the times in the story where family are being schooled in the rehab centre, but Frey writes with such consideration. It’s not preachy, it’s not judgemental. It is what it is. Which actually brings me quite nicely on to my third point…

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Three: Life is life.
As Frey lives his way through rehab, he gets given a book. Tao Te Ching. A classic in Chinese texts. And it’s this book that gives him a new perspective on things. Forget the 12 Steps, forget God and Higher Powers. Old ancient Chinese dudes know what’s up. Now of course, being the book lover I am, as soon as I got the pages where Frey starts talking about said book, I was on Amazon quicker than a flash ordering my own copy. And six months later I’m still making my way through it. There are some lessons within the book that speak to me and some that do not. But I feel the main essence of the Tao, and the main thing that Frey learnt, is that life is life. Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s kind of beautiful. We as a people spend so much of our time and energy worrying, wanting, thinking we need, being greedy etc etc, that we rarely just take things as they are and accept responsibility for ourselves. AMLP is a journey in what holding ourselves accountable is all about.

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Four: Take risks. 
In rehab, you have to live by an assload of rules. And mostly, they’re good. They give you routine. Help stabilise you. “Set you on the right path”. But it also seems like sometimes they’re just a bit shit. Nice metaphor for life as a whole too, eh? And Frey, of course, isn’t willing to take all the bullshit. Like we said before, he’s about accepting responsibility and knowing that life is life. So, when Frey meets a girl, Lilly, those rules mean nothing. Because the risk of speaking to, touching, holding, loving someone he’s not supposed to, is far less than the result of healing, growing and ultimately, believing that things can be better. Living on the side of caution is sometimes good. But the rest of the time you just have to take the leap, trust yourself and know that only you know what’s right for you.

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Five: Hold on.
While in rehab Frey meets Leonard. A mysterious, powerful, endearing man. They soon become friends, best friends and eventually family – in a very poignant section where Leonard asks Frey if he will accept being his son. Throughout their time together they help each other, probably in more ways than they both really know, and forge a relationship that is seemingly unbreakable. When Frey reaches his (almost) breaking point, Leonard gives him one piece of life advice: hold on. And it’s something that relates to anyone, no matter your background, age, or situation. When life is shit, when you feel shit, when everything around you is absolute shit, just h o l d o n. Because you can get through it. You will get through it. You deserve to get through it. And it doesn’t matter how ridiculous a place you find yourself. Or even if you’re just throwing yourself a pity party for no reason. Just hold the fuck on. Things get better. They do.

And so I guess now I have to come to some sort of conclusion. I feel a bit emotional reliving all of this if I’m honest. I can’t encourage people enough to read A Million Little Pieces (and then go on and read My Friend Leonard…and just basically all of Frey’s work). I think James Frey is one of the most important and fascinating writers of our time and I feel so much more enriched for coming across his books and reading his stories.

This is a man who has been through it. And even if it has been “blown up” and “exaggerated”, then he’s got the wild imagination to come up with it! And that in itself is a major feat. I have learnt so much from this man and his life and I am forever grateful.

Mr Frey I wholeheartedly thank you.

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