Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dignity of True Self-Expression

"OP N" Chicago February 2013
I am studying to become a meditation instructor - I am one already, but one that maintains longer-term relationships with meditation students. I have a program this weekend, so I have been cramming on dharma in preparation for "exams" and other assessment tools coming up.

This morning, I read this passage in Chogyam Trungpa's guide for Shamatha instructors. While this is a limited text, this passage does not impart anything secretive, so I believe I can share it. It connects in really well with the ongoing conversation here regarding the role of "confession" in memoir:
A lot of people fall into the trap of confessionalism. You begin to tell people how bad you were, how terrible the trauma was that you have gone through..You feel the students will think you are an honest guy, and you have vomited everything you have to vomit. Somehow this seems to be very deceptive in some sense; it builds you up, showing how honest a person you are.. (This is not very dignified).. You are comparing notes between two people in jail, and somehow that doesn't seem to be the point..Obviously there should be first-hand experience exchanged, but at the same time one shouldn't indulge that particular style of winning someone's confidence. That's a double twist of some kind -- that purity and at the same time a lot of personality trips are involved.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Manual for Shamatha Instructors
I like that - "the trap of confessionalism" and "you have vomited everything you have to vomit." I have spoken here before about the importance of not hiding important details - how the readers know when the writer has not shared important information, can feel the lack or the lie. And yet, if we have some idea that by sharing it all we have fulfilled a role for the reader, we have sorely missed out on nuance and respect. 

Always, it is so important, especially as writers of memoir, to ask, continue to explore, be curious, about this impulse to share. These are important questions at any stage but especially crucial if we are seeking publication:
-What is behind the sharing? 
-What are we seeking?
-Are we looking for love?  
(Natalie Goldberg warns us again and again not to use writing to get love)
-Do we want forgiveness?
-Are we asking the readers to do something for us that we can't do for ourselves?
Maintaining dignity - as Trungpa calls it above - while also being honest and open is not a paradox.
It is possible to share what is needed, what others need to read and hear, without stripping ourselves to the bones and making ourselves out to be the bad guys or gals, or even to be the ultimate victims. More nuanced, complicated depictions of how things have gone - both happy and sad, hard and easy, raw and real and also a bit breezy - those depictions are what keep readers coming back again and again.

We say we want confessionalism. Maybe some folks do. Maybe it does sell better. But it loses a lot of dignity. The writer loses a lot of dignity. So do the readers. You can have both - be honest and be open and also still be forthright.
Have respect for all your experiences.
Learn as you write.
Realize you don't have to 'fess up (to) anything. 
You have lived your life.
Now write it. With dignity.

1 comment:

  1. I know I often just comment to play cheerleader, but this really is one of the most insightful things you've posted. I love it, and I'm going to save it and refer back to it. I of course have more comments and some of them are still forming, so I will leave those out for now. Thank you. Thank you.