To the top of gravity

15 04 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to teach his students to write honestly.

I said, Well, yes, but. . . .

To which he replied, Sure, and. . . .

It’s marvelous to tell writers to write the naked truth, to get the courage to strip oneself naked by remembering that everyone else is naked, too.

Human condition: a talisman for bravery.

Except that, well, maybe not so much “Except that” as “In addition to” the call to honesty one must remind the student-writers to be brave, that honesty often requires bravery, because honesty is a hard good to handle.

To be honest requires bravery because you might get your teeth kicked in.

It is also the case that to be honest can be, as I put it, “giddifying”: you are loosed from yourself as helium bubbles pop through your skin and you can’t quite believe that the words you wrote and are about to send out are your words meant for everyone. You have broken the sound barrier and speed of light and are now stretching beyond time.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I’m being honest, at least how I can feel after having written: discombobulated and disoriented and blinking and wondering just where the gravity went.

Not always, not most times. But sometimes, still.

Such a glorious sensation: I’d chase it forever if it weren’t so unreliable.

Or I, braver.

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That was the river/This is the sea

11 05 2009

Why bother with openness and honesty? Really, what’s the problem with a little subterfuge?

This, from a woman who blogs pseudonymously, who refers to FelineCity and Bummerville rather than the real places—and who’s trying to come to terms with life in general and her life in particular.

I intiated this blog with the notion of playing with ideas, of being able to turn things over in my hand without having to worry about referees and journals and publications. I took myself off the tenure track on purpose (another post, perhaps), but didn’t want to take myself out of the realm of political theory.

And it was to be about the ideas, not about me. But it’s become about me. I’ve set up another blog for my students, and some of my ideas about politics have migrated or will migrate to that site. It’s not that I’ve given up on politics and theory on this site, but my, ah, considerations of existence have become more prominent than expected, which means the considerations of my existence have also become more prominent.

This is not a problem. But there is the matter of my pseudonymity, and of the people in my life. I am protective of both my and their privacy, but the dynamics behind that protectiveness vary. While I don’t reveal my name, I’m more than willing to scrutinize my own actions—camouflage in service to revelation.

But I don’t want to hurt anyone else, and don’t particular want to reveal aspects of others’ lives that they may not want revealed. It’s one thing to relate a story in person to a friend; it’s quite another to send it out into the wild west of cyberspace, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. An empathic conversation in an intimate setting could simply devolve into bloggy fodder for someone else’s machine.

Yet what if your story is intertwined with someone else’s? Lori Gottlieb wrote an essay in this past week’s NYTimes about the complications of writing about one’s mother. If you write about your childhood, she notes, it’s inevitable that parents will make an appearance—and that they may not like it. She quotes Susan Cheever, who edited out a particular anecdote about her mother at her mother’s request: ‘Now I’d probably say, ‘It’s your life, but it’s my book.’ ‘

Does one’s book trump another’s life? Perhaps it would be more straightforward to say It’s your life, but it’s my life, too—and we don’t get to edit each other’s lives.

In Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley writes about his famous parents, Pat and William F., in ways both affectionate and morbid. Given what I had read on Crunchy Con, I had expected a scathing account of their parenting, but the revelations of their, ah, quirks as Mum and Pup seemed to conceal even more. Still, should Christo (as WFB referred to him) have written so expansively of his father’s drug habits, or his habit of unzipping and peeing out the car?

On the other hand, C. wrote a beautiful essay about one of her few memories of her mother, a beloved woman who died when C. was very young. There’s a context to this tale which is not explicitly mentioned (namely, the rest of C.’s life), but the story stands on its own, with a thin and sharp sorrow slicing through the poignancy of the tale. I’d heard it before, amidst a long conversation, but written on its own it’s taken on a resonance I didn’t hear amidst the crowd of spoken words.

I’m so glad she wrote it. It is a story which deserves its flight.

Still. I don’t write about my parents, with the exception of the posts on my dad’s stroke. We’ve had our difficulties, and I have made my own kind of peace with my folks—a peace which would not be served by debriding old wounds. They’ve healed enough; let them be.

Do I betray my writing in my silence? This is something memoirists often cop to: We’re writers, we betray, it’s what we do. I can’t speak to anyone’s sincerity in so copping, but it seems glib, a kind of cheap badge of courage: Look at all I’m willing to destroy in order to create!

I am not at all willing to destroy my parents. I’m not famous, they’re not famous, and the chances of them ever coming across anything I’ve written is very small, but I’m not willing to pick at them publicly. (Privately? Well, that’s what therapy was for. . . .) They’re decent people, and they don’t deserve that.

Would I write about them after they die? And would that be better or worse? After all, it is precisely because they’d be beyond my words that they’d be unable to respond to them. I don’t know what I’ll do, not least because I don’t know who I’ll be when they do die, and what I’ll need and want when they are gone. It is entirely possible, however, that I’ll never write much about them.

Is that protectiveness? Cowardice? Exhaustion? Yes.

But what of my own life? Why not reveal myself? Here, again, I refer to a post C. wrote, on self-stories which include ‘too much information’, in this case about an incident at a museum in Amsterdam. It’s funny. But it’s more than funny; it’s also a light she shines in her own face:

The reason I used my real name on that story is because I wanted to commit myself to being who I am, no matter what that means. Now I look back at myself 10 plus years ago with affection and exasperation. Can I really follow through? Can I really be that brave?

I don’t know that I can be that brave (even if no one is reading me). Oh, I could dismiss it all as ‘rash’, but I think C. is right on the need to commit oneself, no matter what.

This, after all, is the ancient understanding of courage: Not the exposure itself, but the willingness to stand fast, to hold to the courage of one’s convictions.

Eh, maybe I’ll half-ass it, no longer patrolling the perimeter for security breaches, allowing for the possibility that my identity will sneak across the border.

Not brave, not courageous, but a start.