I’m Not Writing about TreesPosted: March 16, 2013
These are my notes to the AWP Panel, 2013: How To Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction, organized by B. J. Hollars. My fellow panelists were Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter. B. J. sent us a series of questions to think about; we agreed not to read prepared papers, in the hope of stimulating a conversation among us and engaging the audience. We could have spent hours answering questions afterwards.
Words from Derrida’s Writing and Difference guide my thinking these days about working within the field of creative nonfiction: “There is no writing which does not devise some means of protection, to protect against itself, against the writing by which the ‘subject’ is himself threatened as he lets himself be written: as he exposes himself.”
The prompt I have responded to was this:
Tell us a bit about your experiences writing nonfiction about friends and family.
I came to writing creative nonfiction through poetry. My background as a scholar and writer was steeped in the history of poetry. I hadn’t been participating in conversations about the generic boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. I had in graduate school read works like Paul De Man’s “Autobiography as Defacement” and thought about the complications of authorship, the inherent fictiveness of language and subjectivity. I encountered zero debates about the literal status of truth and fact. A poem’s value—its literary value—had little to do with whether anything in the poem happened or could be corroborated. I’d go so far as to say that facts occupied a negative space in my education. Poets were under an obligation to make something new out of the autobiographical through imagination and art, through words. We were concerned with issues of emotional truth, though I don’t remember using those exact words. Poems needed to operate with emotional coherence. The task was to find language and sequence and image that struck the reader as real while doing the emotional work of the poem.
I believe that I revealed myself in my poetry, but in the terms of our topic, I was also disguised and protected, and by inference anyone I “wrote about” or included in my poetry was also shielded. Certain conventions in how to read poetry were in place that gave me cover, a cover that is not available to the essayist or memoirist. It was assumed that a supposed person was the narrator of the poem. Attention was paid to the inventive use of language, the form on the page, and the internal coherence of image sequence rather than whether that was really my mother I was writing about and what might she think about that. I don’t ever remember being asked if my mother had read a poem in which “she” figured or what she thought about it as I have been asked by audiences after reading my nonfiction prose.
While creative nonfiction derives some of its power from the writer’s self-exposure, it is also burdened by a need to identify the literal status of the biographical.
My family didn’t really read my poetry. They were resistant to my artistic tendencies. Occasionally my mother read something, and what she liked is instructive for the discussion. She liked poems she found decorative and that did not raise any questions about how I might be representing my life, which might include her. She liked one poem of mine called “Young Women Picking Fruit,” based on a Mary Cassatt painting, and she asked my niece to write out the text using her calligraphy skills. Then she framed the poem with a small reproduction of the painting side by side and presented it to me as a gift. This was a piece of my writing that the family could get behind. They weren’t in it. And they didn’t think I was in it either. They didn’t understand anything going on in the poem because they considered themselves unqualified to understand poetry. It was pretty, benign, decorative. And I was safe. Their acknowledged ignorance kept me safe. And the conventions of poetry as I was safely employing them kept my writing unthreatening.
Not so when I began writing essays and memoir. Nothing kept me safe, though I didn’t know that at the time I began to dip my toes into the waters of creative nonfiction. I was woefully unprepared for the kinds of questions that arise in writing creative nonfiction. When I began to experiment in what I was vaguely thinking was autobiographical prose, I thought the same expectations of artistry applied to poetry and creative nonfiction—that they both belonged to the category of literature, not journalism. I believed they were both involved in the drama of the self, they were both mediated by language, and that memory could not be verified but is dynamic and constructed. I believed that a complicated relationship existed between the I who writes I in the text.
So, to compress wildly here, I want to use one essay I wrote as an example of what I was unprepared for. I began writing what I later learned were essays. At the time I knew they were prose and they were triggered by my attempt to explore my history through family, class, and gender. I had begun to send them to literary journals but I didn’t designate whether they were fiction or nonfiction. One of these pieces—“Hair”—was published and subsequently included in The Best American Essays. I was stunned to learn that my meditation on women and hair was an exemplar of Montaigne’s classic style. At the time I had never read Montaigne, I’m embarrassed to say. But more to the point, somehow my family got a hold of it and read “Hair.” I did not tell them about it, which betrays my concerns that they would not look favorably upon it. I never dreamed my little essay about my mother and sisters and I would get such play. But I knew my parents would not understand the essay and I was right.
They thought they could read and understand my essay very well, thank you, and they didn’t like it one little bit.
Here was one portrait of my mother’s hair—“This was hair no one touched, crushed, or ran fingers through. One poked and prodded various hair masses back into formation. I never saw my father stroke my mother’s head. Children whimpered when my mother came home fresh from the salon with a potent do.” And on it went in that vein.
My sisters didn’t fare much better, especially one. Here is my intro: “My other sister was born with thin, lifeless, nondescript hair: a cross she has had to bear. Even in the baby pictures, the limp strands plastered on her forehead in question marks wear her down.”
I didn’t spare myself. “Having not outgrown the thickets of cowlicks, mother bought a spectrum of brightly colored stretch bands to hold my hair back off my face. Then she attached thin pink plastic curlers with snap-on lids to the ends of my hair to make them flip up or under, depending on her mood. The stretch bands pressed my hair flat until the very bottom, at which point the ends formed a tunnel with ridges from the roller caps—a point of emphasis, she called it. Coupled with the aquamarine eyeglasses, newly acquired, I looked like an overgrown insect that had none of its kind to bond with.”
I wasn’t revealing what we’d call big, bad family secrets, but that didn’t matter. That I included myself for the worst treatment didn’t matter. My mother and sisters were upset with me. They didn’t understand the essay as a cultural critique about gender and style; they didn’t get the exaggerated humor—all of the niceties about literary voice were lost on them. To even try to talk to them was pointless. They felt exposed. And they didn’t like it.
What did I learn?
1. That the “personal essay” worked differently than poetry— there were new risks, new exposures, that people might read what I wrote, that all kinds of people who don’t feel qualified to understand poetry do feel qualified to read and judge memoir and essay, that people will for the most part not like being “included” in my work. And who can blame them?
2. The truth of what Joan Didion says– “Writers are always selling someone out.” I hadn’t intended to hurt or sell out my mother and my sisters, but from their point of view that was just what I did. In my writing up until this point, I had been spared this glimpse into the heart of darkness.
3. That to tell my story I had to include other people who didn’t ask to be written about. There was no way to write well about my past without writing about my mother and sisters. The essayist and memoirist face a terrible conundrum—their family cannot remain vague and inscrutable. And even when one writes out of empathy, there is no getting around the fact that they didn’t ask to be written about and that you aren’t telling their story.
4. That Mark Doty’s conclusion in “Return to Sender, Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir” was more true than false —“that we will lose people in our lives by writing about them.”
Do I regret writing the essay? No. I wouldn’t change the writing.
Would I do anything differently? Yes. I would know what the risks are in writing about my family. I wouldn’t keep my writing secret. I’d own up to what I was doing.
I’m currently writing a memoir, and this time around I’ve got a hold of what I understand a memoir to be and the risks I am incurring. Besides the many challenges of re-entering one’s past, the most immediate issue has been my realization that in order to tell my story, I have to include the man I married when I was exceedingly young who had been my professor my sophomore year in college. We divorced shortly thereafter, and we’ve gone on to live many lives since then. Still I can’t write about that period of my life without writing about him. He was integral to the experience. There is no way of going around him or leaving him out. I will have to use him to make something worthwhile. This intimate connection, this one on one, this life to memoir if you will, is the pleasure of the memoir and the pain of memoir; it is the risk one takes, and there’s no question it can go badly.
It’s impossible to get around this central fact of dependence upon others in memoir unless you write about trees.
I am not writing about trees.
Though there is nothing wrong about writing about trees.
I don’t think creative nonfiction is monochromatic. Each project is different and requires that the writer think through the ethical questions for herself. There are limits to the usefulness of generalization. There are writings in our field that make me uneasy—almost on an instinctual physical level. Sometimes I feel that the writer has not revealed herself but has exposed others and that the dynamics should be exactly the other way around. I have to work these tangles through again and again. The work is never finished.
For a long time I was blocked in my current project. I didn’t have the courage to seek out my ex-husband and put the case before him, and I knew I wouldn’t go forward without his response. I wouldn’t spring the memoir upon him as I sprung “Hair” on my unsuspecting mother and sisters. I was at an impasse, stymied. And then in a great stroke of luck he wrote me because a book of essays he wrote about viewing particular films had come out and he wanted to send it to me. He had written an essay about our watching Truffaut’s The Wild Child. So he was rereading his past too, and I was in it. I wrote back and told him what I was up to and was relieved to receive his go-ahead. I imagine there will be many difficulties ahead, but this is what I think I must do. It is an opportunity for me to try both to write as I must and to think about what it means for him.