midweek moments: on writing and its dangers

I know it’s unusual, even unheard-of, to have a midweek post appear. Given the response I’ve had to my last post on a private level, I think it’s necessary.

*

This blog is a blog only in the literal sense of it being a “web log”, an internet site that I update every week. It is not a magazine or a journal, as it is run only by me, and contributed to only by me.

In the last few years, online writing has carved out new territories, and those territories bring with them new expectations. Blogs are for diary-style updates on a life that do not pretend to be writing in the italicised sense, or they are towering money-making machines that cover everything from beauty to travel under the nebulous and sometimes disingenuous cloak of a label that is lifestyle. Informal personal writing that still seeks a wider audience and wishes to say something often appears on platforms like Medium. Writers who are confident in their work and wish to write on a consistent, ambitious level may pitch to Buzzfeed or established newspaper columns, like the New York Times’ Modern Love. The newest platform to gain in traction is the tinyletter, which, because it appears directly in the recipient’s inbox like a personal email, evokes the feel of a private conversation between writer and reader more than any of the above platforms.

The blog, then, seems outdated, uncomfortable. I agree. I do not think that this blog is suited to my needs. In particular, the expectation created by a casual blog that posts directly to my Facebook and does not aggressively style itself as literary or creative is one of unaffected honesty, a cousin of the study-abroad blog dressed in slightly more elevated language.

Though this isn’t what this blog contains, I am unsure of how to move forward. I would certainly like to pitch my writing to online magazines in the near future, but currently I am in possession of neither the time nor the creative energy to write about anything in particular. I cannot send a piece of work to Modern Love that isn’t really about any easily identifiable subject. I also do not work that way currently: rarely do I settle on a subject and then build the post; it is more usual that a certain image or mode of expression makes its way into my consciousness, and expands itself in the back of my mind over the course of the week. For me, it is less about the story (i.e. what happens in the narrative) and more about the discourse (how the narrative is told). Not that I always insist on privileging form over content, but I enjoy playing with language, creating the same sense of discomfort and surprise with an unusual conceit that the Baroque poets of the seventeenth century also sought (on a much higher level, naturally), whether they were the English Metaphysical poets like Marvell and Donne or the Spanish culteranismo fans like Góngora and Sor Juana. I enjoy writing self-reflexively, thinking about language, exercising my writing muscle once a week for writing’s own sake, because my time is so limited that I do not have the mental space to begin and end with a story: I am interested here only in discourse, and I doubt any publication would want my work as a result. Thus this platform affords me enormous freedom.

I have considered moving to Medium or even Tumblr, but neither of these platforms are as coherent and self-contained as a standalone blog is. There is also the question of audience: I have built a modest but consistent readership of this blog over the last few years, and I am loathe to begin from the ground once again.

However, as explained above, it is clear that the arrangement as it stands does not suit my needs. I dislike having to preface every post with a disclaimer or explanation pointing out that my posts are not straightforward diary entries, that I am, in fact, doing just fine, thank you (genuinely!) for your concern, that my boyfriend has not broken up with me, that I am not deeply miserable, that many, many other things happened over the course of the week that you are reading about, that I simply did not want to write about because, as mentioned, this is not a diary. The series is entitled notes from the diary because it began as such: I would write about my week, but also about thought processes I had had, and things I had considered that I wanted to explore in writing. Now, however, it is a language exercise, but not just that, not exclusively the equivalent of a creative writing prompt in a workshop, as that would also do it a disservice. Yet—when I acknowledge the honesty that does characterise my work, I am at pains to emphasise that honesty is not defined by the straightforward sharing of deeply personal details, but by an honesty of feeling and expression. Thus: I could simply include the disclaimer I have mentioned and indeed considered many times, something along the lines of “not everything you read here will be true“, but this feels uncomfortable—what do we mean by true? Is truth defined then solely as “deeply personal details about my own life”? Do we not do the idea of creative truth, truth that is defined less by occurrence and circumstance and more by honesty of expression, a disservice? Second, of course, that indicates the viability of a readerly approach, almost a game, where I as the writer am hinting that the piece is a puzzle, a mystery for the benefit of the discerning reader, who is then invited to guess which parts are true and which parts are mere creative bluster. That feels distasteful.

This, I believe, is the inevitable downside of texts that do not present themselves as readerly in the age of the internet, where everyone is a writer on their personal blog, where texts are marketed through the inherently personal medium of a social network. (Readerly texts, says Roland Barthes in his 1970 essay S/Z, are divorced from the reader, and present everything as essentially complete, denying the reader any chance to participate in the construction of the text, offering only a referendum on whether the reader wishes to accept or reject the text. Writerly texts, conversely, move the reader from their role as consumer to that of producer of the text; reading, says Barthes, is not a parasitical act, but a form of work, a quest to find meanings — emphasis on the plural, as there are infinite simultaneous, secondary meanings in texts like these, and the aim ought not to be to treat the text as a game, where the winning result is the location of the single true canonical meaning that texts are sometimes believed to possess.) Barthes argues that the goal of literary work should be to create writerly texts, but the danger there is just that: that the reader goes off in search of the One True Meaning of the text, as if the text is a riddle to be cracked.

Hand in hand with this goes the dangerous over-reliance on biographical or historical approaches to understanding texts, where we as readers seize upon any piece of information about a poet’s mistress or a novelist’s mental illness and match it to their writing, claiming that this new clue unlocks yet more secrets about the text we are presented with. Women, of course, suffer this approach far more than male authors: we need only consider the obsession with uncovering the identity of Elena Ferrante in order to understand this. This, of course, is related to the issues with the term “confessional writing”, which can never be understood as totally neutral and ungendered: it ought merely to be a descriptor, but it is loaded with denigration of women who write in such a mode; women are denied the possibility of writing in a way that sublimates and takes inspiration, yet deviates, from personal experience: anything approaching honesty can only be an uncomplicated mind-to-page transfer.

To return: I cannot continue to neutrally present my writing here as I do now; it causes me great distress to hear that those of you whom I love and respect, as one ought to feel about their loyal readers, are worried about my emotional wellbeing. I am writing my dissertation at the moment, so I have not had time to address the many, many kind and thoughtful messages I have received since Sunday, but you are all very much valued and appreciated. Yet it is clear that I must reconsider how I write, what I write, where I write: it is not fair to the people in my life, either, when it is suspected and speculated on that my boyfriend has broken up with me, or that I am terribly in love with a friend, especially when I am the only one who is involved in the construction and publication of the writing here, meaning that even people as close to me as my boyfriend and my family also fall into the trap of attempting to deduce the perceived truth.

I enjoy writing about emotions, about memory, about love, about writing itself, and I enjoy having an audience with whom to share this work, as I appreciate all feedback and it brings me little joy to consign my wordy experiments to a notebook in my filing cabinet, but this has shown me that I cannot continue with the current arrangement. I will need to retreat and think about the options available to me, so that I am fair to the people in my life, to my own writing, and to myself, both as a person and as a person who writes.

*

From an interview with writer Vivian Gornick in Believer magazine:

BLVR: How do you distinguish the Vivian Gornick in your work from the Vivian Gornick here, in front of me?

VG: Vivian Gornick in actuality is (like everyone else) messy, mercurial, changeable; inconsistent. A lot of people don’t recognize me in the flesh after they’ve read me, because what I do on the page is create a persona out of a part of me that is telling a story. The story is everything. For instance, I’m writing a book now—a kind of meditation on me and New York City and friendship. The person in me who is going to integrate all those concerns is, in the end, a kind of essence of the me who presents herself to the world at large. The difference between me in my work and the me who is here in front of you is that on the page I create a consistency, a voice that must sound really reliable; whereas in person I am free—obviously!—to sound every which way.

BLVR: And this consistency is distinct from the person you are.

VG: I wrote Fierce Attachments many years ago, and after it was published I was at a dinner party and a woman actually accused me of not being the person she was expecting to meet. She thought the “I” in Fierce Attachments was going to have dinner with her. But the “I” at dinner was a lot brasher, a lot more confrontational, a lot less thoughtful, a lot more reckless in her certainties. She thought, What! Who are you? [Laughs]

That’s thing about nonfiction writing that came as such an astonishment. In fiction writing, you’re creating characters who bear the brunt of the world you create, and they all argue and dramatize each other. In memoir, you have only yourself to dramatize the whole thing. And that’s hard, hard work. To pull out of yourself something that resembles both consistency and drama. People think, Oh, its [sic] just me, I know me. But there’s nothing more seriously difficult than the familiar: to take control of it, understand it, shape it, make it mean something to the disinterested reader.

BLVR: Sometimes when I tell a story over and over, I forget which is true: the story I told or what really happened.

VG: I embellish stories all the time. I do it even when I’m supposedly telling the unvarnished truth. Things happen, and I realize that what actually happens is only partly a story, and I have to make the story. So I lie. I mean, essentially—others would think I’m lying. But you understand. It’s irresistible to tell the story. And I don’t owe anybody the actuality. What is the actuality? I mean, whose business is it?

I fell on the street ten years ago. I fell right here on Seventh Avenue on a subway grating and I really hurt my knee, and all these people gathered around. And I wrote a story about what happened. But actually the story I told was only part of what happened. [Laughs] I thought, Whom do I owe? To whom do I owe the actuality? I owe the story!

BLVR: What about writing about other people? You may need to make someone a character, but you don’t want to reduce them to something they’re not.

VG: You can’t reduce an actual human being; you’re just writing! You’re not doing anything to another person. They may recognize themselves in what you’re writing, and then they have to say, “Well, she doesn’t see me as I see myself.” Look, all a writer has is her own experience, and that experience comes out of human relationships. That I don’t agree with, that is something I’ve never subscribed to, that I’m making use of other people. I may cause someone to feel badly, not because I’m doing something to them, but because the way in which I see might cause pain. But I am not doing the hurting.

When I was a young journalist, working at the Voice, I did write a story once based on—well, what happened was I ran into an old college schoolmate, a man whom I had known years back at City College. He and another schoolmate had married, very young, upon graduation. And then, you know, we all sort of kept track of each other, and then we lost track of each other. So here I was, ten years later, writing for the Voice, and I’m on my high horse for radical feminism, and he and I sit down and have a cup of coffee and he tells me about his marriage. Now, you know what’s coming. They had three children. She fell into a deep depression.

And he’s telling me, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.” So—I knew what was wrong with her! I go home and I write this up. I just barely disguise them. I told too much of what I just told you now. I changed their names; I changed their occupations. But she read it. He called me up a week later, after the paper came out, and he said, “I want you to know, she read your story and she came into the kitchen and she said to me, ‘Did you tell her all this?’ And I said, ‘No’”—he lied and said no. And she said to him, “If I thought you had told her all this, I’d divorce you.”

So that scared the shit out of me, and I took a lot more care after that, so that the people I was writing about, as a journalist, would not be offended. Now, I don’t write fiction but I do write narrative; I write memoirs that I treat like stories, so whenever I’m using somebody I actually know as a model, I am submitting them to the agenda of a storyteller, and I feel free to do what I want. These people are not going to be themselves so much as serve something in the story. They serve something else in journalism, too, but not as much. It’s a tricky business. You know—they say writers sell everybody out? What can you do? You know only the people you know.

*

“I, who reportedly write so truthfully about myself, so openly, am not that open.”

Anne Sexton

Advertisements

One thought on “midweek moments: on writing and its dangers

  1. nikita2829 says:

    All good points. I also feel uncomfortable with how to pitch my blog; is it informative or personal? Creative or more factual? Do most of my FB friends care about its contents? If it helps, I definitely read your last post more as a work of pure words, I think that people who expect all blog writing to be true and comprehensive usually don’t read/write enough :p…PS, I discovered some sort of comment made by Andrew Marvell about a Portuguese colony, so that kind of links 17th century British poetry and Spain/Portugal during the age of exploration! Likewise, Philip Sidney’s works on poetry definitely confirm your views on writing and “truth”!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s