Being Honest

I wonder how many bloggers have written about real people in their lives and come to regret it? The business of speaking about the living is always fraught with difficulty. I was reading a brilliant essay from the collection, Truth in Non-Fiction, (editor: David Lazar) by Phyllis Rose, whose memoir, The Year of Reading Proust I had read a while back and enjoyed immensely. The essay, entitled ‘Whose Truth?’ described the difficulties Rose encountered when writing about the live and kicking. Before she ever began her memoir, Rose was haunted by the cautionary tale afforded by the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose account of her home town, Cross Creek, ended in six years of legal battles. Not wishing to offend any of the neighbours she had turned into characters, Kinnan Rawlings went round them all, reading out the requisite chapters. Only she omitted the postmistress, Zelma Cason, on the grounds that she was a more sophisticated person than most, and a good friend from whom she expected no trouble. However, Cason objected mightily to the four sentences that portrayed her, and sued, not for libel, but for invasion of privacy. The lengthy battle ruined the nerves of Kinnan Rawlings and her work, Phyllis Rose writes, was never the same again.

Nervous of such a fate befalling her, Rose consulted all the friends and relatives she had written about, offering to change her manuscript if necessary. ‘When you do this,’ Rose writes, ‘you quickly discover that people who have never read with any seriousness in their lives, when the subject is themselves, become as acute as a Yale English professor to the tones and subtexts of a sentence.’ Her sister hadn’t liked the portrayal of herself when their mother had needed to be rushed into hospital, thinking she looked helpless, her friend, despite being described as witty and smart and lovable, feared nevertheless that she appeared shallow and materialistic, and her brother-in-law, a monk on the other side of the world, was the most upset of all, unhappy that any details of his life should appear in the public domain. More and more people came forward demanding changes, although never for reasons that Rose could possibly have guessed. ‘Gradually it became clear to me that I was making trouble for almost everyone I included and some I didn’t. People do not like being forced to confront how they appear to others.’

Rose quotes Janet Malcolm, herself no stranger to the law courts over her biographies, who declared that there were no two ways around it: the memoirist is in some respects a thief. And what the writer steals of value, Rose suggests, is not another’s experience, or wisdom, or even their best lines, but the individual’s ‘opportunity for self-representation.’ In other words, we all like to construct our identities more than we realize, puffing them up with fantasies, adding pathos to them with acceptable fears, working hard to find the right props and costumes. The extent to which we have a cherished self-image is probably never revealed, unless something unexpected, like a writer presenting an external viewpoint, charges right through the sacred middle of it.

I was thinking about this notion of self-representation this week, first of all in a trivial matter, when Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, The Widow’s Tale, was attacked by New York Times journalist, Janet Maslin, for having omitted mention of Oates’ second marriage, a scant year later. And then I was thinking of it during the revolution in Egypt. Both instances made me think that it is a fundamental human right to be able to say who we are and what has happened to us, without fear of unkind and limiting contradiction. And yet both made me think also of the way that stories straitjacket experience when they come with too much authority attached, making it neater, tidier, more coherent than reality is, and how necessary that reality should come along and mess things up, undermining out-of-date narratives, or pointing to the genuine paradox and confusion that constitutes so much of life.

We need stories to make sense of events and experiences, and most of all, to make sense of ourselves. But it isn’t always a good idea to let the story dominate – sometimes flexibility, disruption, a new angle, is a powerful and creative tool. Stories grow stale, self-definition is an ongoing process, and it’s more skillful to allow our own incoherence and eccentricity to surface sometimes, than to try and bury it under a fragile, glossy façade. Much that is precious is hidden for fear that it will not be seen properly and acknowledged, and will continue to be so if we attack one another for not being obedient to the dictates of society that force certain stories upon us. What will other people think? Is another way of saying, what story must I embody perfectly to be acceptable? It’s good to be messy and honest in our self-presentation, it’s much closer to authentic human experience than a tightly controlled surface. And if we can allow ourselves this, then we make room for alternative perspectives to be experienced as enlightening surprises, rather than horrid shocks.

23 thoughts on “Being Honest

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Agree that the story we create for ourselves needs continual editing RT Being Honest --

  2. After my mother accepted my offer to edit her memoir a few months ago, I began reading various posts around the web regarding some of the issues you raise in your post. My personal conclusion: It is a memoir, not a Wikipedia page. Nor is a memoir a piece of journalism requiring fact-checking and other sorts of permissions.

    I think it’s a mistake to show people your memoir before it is published for exactly the reasons stated above. A memoir author is simply not going to be able to please everyone all the time, nor should they have to. If there is a narrative arc to the memoir, and the author has been true to their chosen theme (in other words, if it is literary), there is nothing to apologize for.

    From what I’ve read, the only good reason to show a memoir manuscript to a lawyer before publication is if one of the characters is said to have engaged in criminal activity.

    Another point. Readers often forget that what a writer presents speaks to who the writer is, not who the reader is.

  3. This is great. When I was working on a novel, I found it very hard to write a coherent single story plotline, I wrote fragmented pieces and alternative narratives, based on different choices the characters could take. Now I’m thinking of using short stories to explore small moments from my own life and to explore different possibilities in my character’s lives. Life doesn’t follow a smooth narrative arc, it rises and falls.

  4. I loved the comment you left Dorothy W about the Oates book, and for the same reasons I love this post. I prefer messy, contradictory stories myself, one of the reasons being that they stretch the limits of acceptability and thus make the world a little more flexible (one hopes). But at the same time, I can sympathise with Oates’ reasoning (or what I imagine it to be), as it so often seems that any element that disrupts a neat surface becomes the sole focus of attention.

  5. A novelist once told me that she did everything possible to make the father of the main character completely the opposite of her own father, so as not to offend him. Nevertheless, he harangued her for inserting his real self into the story. I spend a lot of time thinking about whether my stories should be labeled as fiction or memoir, and I’ve done a little of both, even though I’d say I fictionalize about equally regardless. I walk the thin line. But ultimately, no matter what I call it, people will see themselves as they will.

  6. Great post! The how-I-see-myself versus how-others-see-me distinction is spot on. One of the great things fiction can do is reveal these discrepancies, but once the fiction label is removed we enter the actual, not the representational world, where the participants can argue. The problem lies in that all these worlds are representational ones, all have an element of storytelling, selection and creation in them. I’ve recently read Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, which in one sense is about writing fiction and writing history, but to me seems as much about the creation of character and identity, inside the novel and in the world. I don’t know if you have read it. I found it thought provoking and enjoyable, just like your posts!

  7. Wonderful post! It’s particularly interesting to me because I worry about this a lot with memoir writers and their families, particularly the family members who come off poorly in a book. I’ve heard interviews with memoir authors who swear their schizophrenic abusive mothers were FINE with EVERYTHING they wrote, and I never know what to think about it all.

    I love the story about Rawlings, also. It is like the memoir version of the start of the Sleeping Beauty story.

  8. I’m so looking forward to reading the Truth in Nonfiction book — it sounds fabulous. Your argument reminds me of what Emily Fox Gordon said about preferring personal essays to memoir, because the personal essay inherently allows more room for contradictions and uncertainties. I think, though, that what it really comes down to is how one writes essays and memoir. Surely it’s possible to write a memoir that’s messy and an essay that smooths out contradictions too much.

  9. A man whose family I know wrote many stories about them. Basically he doesn’t go home to the Reservation anymore. It would have been OK except that he told some truth in those pages and because of that no one could hide. Not there. Everyone knows. But to have someone say it…well. No. I have an unusual history and I have been asked to write it, but his experience, and what litlove recounts here is why I will never write such a memoir. There are other ways to tell those truths.

  10. Interesting discussions here, both your post and the comments. They remind me of one of your past posts regarding non-fiction writing. Is the term ‘creative non-fiction’ an oxymoron? Coincidentally, I’ve just written a post on a similar topic with respect to a movie. The same arguments always show up in biopics, or even in the more loosely rendered versions denoted by the phrase “based on a true story”. And especially with films, visuals and sounds have to be more enhanced for cinematic presentation. How much leeway does a filmmaker has for creativity and freedom of expressions in handling the ‘truths’? Or, what boundaries should a screenwriter observe in order to avoid being accused of revisionism?

  11. I published my own childhood memoir a few years ago, didn’t even think of showing it to anyone, and managed to upset a few people very much. I hadn’t realised this might happen which I suppose was very naive of me, but nothing I had said appeared to me to be unpleasant or damaging — so what you say here about people’s self image (and in one case their image of their parent) is really relevant. But I would not change a thing. No point in writing about yourself if you are going to be less than honest. Thanks for this very interesting post.

  12. I could talk about this subject forEVER as it’s so interesting, so I’m drawn to all these stories of writers reconfiguring events, even though it feels kind of grubby to be so interested.

    What I find interesting is the Times profile of Oates and her new book. If I’m remembering rightly it was quite open about her second marriage and Oates talked about it with the interviewer, but it didn’t mention the lack of Oates second marriage in the book (I’d have to check that, but I’m pretty sure). The interview seemed to me to say that she now lives in paralell states that operate at the same time – devastated by her first husbands death, but happy with her second husband. I wonder if it’s a particular limitation of memoir’s typically linear narrative that she couldn’t quite overcome, whereas (I assume based on my expereince of her writing) she’d have easily jumped over it in a novel. Did she find it hard to show both the truths she lives with in a way that doesn’t suggest a single, linear line of experience? But at the same time that would suggest her method wasn’t quite right for this project I guess. I haven’t read it yet so I might find her style is totally different to what I’m supposing.

    That idea that she created it this way to provide a fully formed narrative, for the arts sake, is awfully tempting as well though. It’s the natural impulse when writing any kind of narrative isn’t it? Do any great examples of narratives where the writer allows a little mess in and makes everything more complicated spring to mind (I always love recommendations)? New revisionist works are great for fiction, but not so great for memoir, where the people who want to offer other perspectives can’t get a book deal, but I’d love to see a memoir where an author somehow manages to put other peoples views of events in, like a collaborative memoir. Is there a word for that?

  13. I believe most of us are much more vulnerable than we think we are. Little fibs and lies are a way of protecting ourselves. When someone comes and just rips off the mask we are wearing and shows us exposed and less than perfect, that is very painful. And cruel. I for myself do strive towards as much truth as possible but I am aware that this is not everybodies wish. Should I write about someone I would make sure the person cannot be recognized or the person does not care. Anything else is an act of violence.

  14. Writing is a dangerous profession, you risk alienating friends and family especially if you write memoir but fiction writers don’t get off easy either. Edith Wharton’s friends, family and acquaintances were always complaining about appearing as characters in her books. I bet Plato even got complaints from the people he wrote about in his Dialogues!

  15. I had no idea about Marjorie K. Rawlings’ experiences writing–it just goes to show you how much more painful other’s perceptions of ourselves can be much different/harsher than our own and having them shared with the world unbeknownst to us could be a painful experience indeed.

  16. Lela – in the same book there’s an essay by Vivien Gornick, who got into trouble for saying (perfectly reasonably, she felt) that her own memoir of her mother contained composite characters and conversations that had been distilled from a number of conversations. She ended her essay saying that what the memoir needed was better readers! By which she meant, people more au fait with the conventions of memoir writing. Good luck with editing your mother’s memoir – I hope it turns out to be a great success as a project, and I agree that the writer has to take up a stance in relation to the genre and then stick to it. Integrity is all.

    Carolyn – I completely agree that life rises and falls, and tends to resist all the neat causality we would put on it, and the coherence, too. I love the idea of your short stories – hope you enjoy the process of crafting them.

    Nymeth – I have complete sympathy with Oates, who no doubt knows what her publisher wants too. There is an abhorrence of anything incoherent on the market at the moment, so I doubt she could have put it in even if she’d wanted to! And you and I are in complete agreement about messy life!

    Squirrel – it’s lovely to have you visit! I completely agree – if people are determined to see themselves in the work of writers they know, they are going to do it regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Or whatever the author says!

    Lilian – oh thank you! You are very welcome.

    Bookboxed – do you know, I have been wanting to read Atonement for years now but just keep failing to pick it up. There’s always some reason why I never get to it, although I do want to! You hit the nail on the head – as soon as we move into language, we’re into representation, and in the gap between word and object, all sorts of fears and fantasies can enter. It doesn’t matter what genre is being written!

    Dr Tom – thank you that, I think.

    Jenny – schizophrenics are one of the groups of people who find it hardest to accept/admit there is anything wrong with them, so it is quite possible they simply do not recognise themselves in representations! And I think there are some people who are able to be proud or accepting of whatever they have done, or to understand the reasons for it. I think there are a huge range of responses possible to seeing oneself in print, and whilst there are some people who will always assume they have been copied, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, there will be others who never recognise themselves. Have you read Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson? It’s very funny about this whole putting real people into fictional novels thing, and I do recommend it.

    Dorothy – oh yes! I’d forgotten you had this too. Oh I think you will enjoy it. And very interesting what you say in response to Fox Gordon. There must indeed be infinite ways of writing both memoirs and essays, and it’s actually personal choice that impels her towards the essay. But I do think there’s a problem with publishing less than coherent books at the moment – publishers do so like their elevator pitch.

    Bluestocking – and when you moan about X who pranged your car or B who forgot your date at the restaurant, they don’t know who they are? Just teasing!! 🙂

    Mary – you are quite right that there are always lots of different ways to write anything, and no need to go for the jugular unless you choose to. Perhaps the man writes in order to have an excuse not to go home? It must be quite an effective way of keeping distance.

  17. Arti – I must admit I hadn’t given much thought to this problem with films, but I’m sure you’re right and that exactly the same situation exists. I will come over and read your post (how I wish you’d show up in my feed reader again!)

    Harriet – how very interesting. I think it’s most telling that your representations, which indeed don’t seem unfair or unkind or unreasonable, end up upsetting people nevertheless. The idea is that you have to say something nasty, but Rose’s point is that that’s not the case at all. It’s whether you say something different to what’s inside a person’s head. And given how impossible that would be to guess, you just have to write your own truth and accept the disagreements, I imagine!

    Jodie – I just love the idea of a collaborative memoir, with all different perspectives on the same events. How brilliant would that be? I can give a recommendation of a fiction book that does that – Carol Shield’s Happenstance, gives the husband’s and the wife’s perspectives on the same events and is really rather good. But the good questions you ask about messy memoirs have me stumped – I can’t think of one at the moment, although if one comes to mind I will certainly let you know. I do feel that the publishers and editors have to take some of the blame here. They absolutely will not accept anything other than the elevator pitch for a book, and dislike incoherence. So the onus is already on the writer to make a focused work, without unnecessary confusion. It’s hard to get reviewers and readers to understand a messy narrative, too, unless much effort goes into explaining the mess, which rather undermines the point of it. I also think it’s perfectly possible, in fact more likely than not, to live with conflicting emotions, and mixed feelings. Particularly after going through a huge difficult event like a bereavement, and I tend to think it’s very unfair of the New York Times reporter not to give Oates the benefit of the doubt. What does she gain by not giving it, I wonder?

    Caroline – I’m not sure I could go so far as to say that anything else is an act of violence, particularly given that Phyllis Rose’s point is that she didn’t write about the people she knew in an unkind or negative way. Having read her memoir, I can back her up! Her portraits of people are sympathetic and insightful and interesting. But if they didn’t chime with the internal images of those concerned, she got into trouble. I figure that one way or another, over the course of life, we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that we don’t embody the fantasies we own about ourselves. You can be caught out in those without someone going to print about you! So I guess I would rather figure out what matters to me about myself, do the best I can, and try to disengage from worrying too much about how the external me gets viewed. I do always think that other’s projections say more about them, than they do about the object in view.

    Danielle – I guess most of us are just thankful that we don’t know too many memoir writers! 🙂

  18. Oh! I must get this book. Enlightening post.
    I am interested in the process of fictionalisation and impossibility to represent reality in narratives claiming to truth. At the moment though, I’m working on the opposite phenomenom: the intrusion of autobiographical elements in fictional narratives and the impact on interpretation.

  19. Pingback: The Buried Life, Examined « Copywrite1985

  20. I have a writer friend who says this is one of the reasons she writes fiction instead of memoir. She can use whatever she likes from real life, and she says most often, people do not recognize themselves. In fact, they often think characters on which they are *not* based are the ones modeled after them…and sometimes still object. I just thought it was interesting that our disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us exists either way.

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