Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Digging in the Dirt/The Body Under the Rug

A student sent me a link to this article in the Opinionator (NYT). It's title is very apt - for the Peter Gabriel video above, for the content of this blog post: "The Body Under the Rug."

It's the most recent in a long line of many, many articles and opinion pieces on memoir, especially in the NYT. It's all the rage to rage on memoir lately, and I am very interested in the direction it is taking. I am very interested in the direction memoir is taking, period. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his book Creativity (2004), innovation is based not only in what is created but how it interacts with what is already - or isn't already - available.

I hate to say it, but I think what has been happening lately is that the "Reality TV" form of innovation has taken over in memoir. Which is to say: the more I confess, the more shame I out, the more fresh the memoir will be. Fresh as in fresh meat.

I have written here already many times so far about the levels of "revelation" in memoir. What the NYT article and recent conversations have lead me to explore recently, though, are an entry point regarding intimacy.

Especially after reading LeGuin's chapter on memoir and fact/fiction, I began to ponder why our orientation would change so dramatically. Certainly it's not just the style of writing - though there's been a general trend towards creative non-fiction (briefly: using fictional techniques to express non-fictional writing), memoir in specific is subject to a whole other set of trends. I think what has happened, and this is an opinion in progress, is that memoir/autobiography began as a form for the famous - a retrospective, or recounting of a particular period of one's life, after becoming well-known for something else: for writing, acting, etc.

As it became/has become more of an everyman/woman's market, people often take on the air of justifying why it is they are writing their memoir/s. And the content has shifted, slowly but surely, from a distant perspective with few quotes of dialogue and focus on analysis/adult understanding of earlier times, to dropping the reader(s) right into the action. 

What's compelling action, then? The kinds of things that fiction writers use to get us to sit up late and grip the pages? Sex, violence and drugs. But it isn't just the content - certainly those have been topics of discussion for centuries. There are ways to write about where one was wronged or has done wrong that are confessional, shame-purging and there are ways to write about them that are human and intimate. What I am trying to say is that we have waved in the direction of shame-purging and confession, not by content but by manner. This is the way of our media, our television shows, and it is something the literati love to poo-poo, while those books sell millions. In the meantime, real intimacy makes for far better, more human and even-handed writing, but sells less, garners less controversy (part of the sales, for certain), and isn't published by the same big houses.

When, in the case of Alexander Stille's opinion piece above, relatives and friends become concerned about the content of your writing (he says in regards to his Aunt Lally: "It took me seven months to get her to read it (“I’m afraid,” she told my sister, Lucy), and then five months to calm her down."), the writer assumes s/he is fucked. When people ask Natalie Goldberg how to deal with this problem, she replies "Tell them this is how you remember it. And if they object, tell them to write their own version."

But I have a different suggestion. I think people are worried about memoir because of the rash of reactive, purging content in the last decade or so. However, if you really engage in more intimately written memoir (far harder for the writer to write, far more human for the reader to read, far less popular/common a style), the chances are your "subjects" (especially if even slightly protected through change in appearance or role) won't mind so much.

What do I mean by this?

Writing "about" something is common - a layer of "telling" versus "showing." It's also a layer of protection for the writer - I am going to sit back at a distance and tell you how it went. Dropping the reader (and, of course, the writer must do this herself in order to get the results) immediately into the situation with less distancing explanation means that the reader herself gets invested, and when we actually invest others in our story at the vulnerable heart level, compassion dramatically increases.

Example? But of course.

From Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch, p.134:

For a long time I thought that there was something wrong with me that I wanted to lunge at one of them and hump them like a little monkey. At home, in bed, alone, I'd get on my stomach and butterfly kick my bed to death. Or maul a pillow grinding my hips and clenching my knees around it. Finally it got so frustrating - this whatever it was I had in me - I had to resort to hair care items like brushes and combs and rubber bands. Snap.
Yeah? Have you ever tried it? Then shut up.
This is not clits and dicks. This is simple, honest, direct-without-pushing it description. 
She's vulnerable and gently indicts the reader to be vulnerable. 

My theory is that if we write like this, in our own voices, then the people involved in our stories, and others, will be so invested that they will not be as shocked, not be as repulsed, and not be as ashamed themselves. Disconnection is what feeds shame: that secret-pleasure feeling that accompanies so many people's sexual fantasies and also reading of others' sexual fantasies. Of course not all memoirs are about sex - but as my first one is, this has been my main frame.

Yes, I agree with Stille - meaning - Yes, memoir is tricky. But I also think there are options for how we write about those things which otherwise consume us. There are ways to depict shame and hidden places that simply feed their self-consuming flames. And there are ways to write about what's gone wrong, or done wrong, or even right - extreme pleasure of orgasmic connection right - without disconnecting.

Again, mainstream media is asking us to disconnect. Don't listen to the call. Write to make things right: be vulnerable in an intimate, real sense, and most others won't be able to help but heed your call and truly connect.