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.