My greatest fear when I sit down each morning is that I’ll write something unclear or self-aggrandizing or petty—something an editor would highlight and send back to me with a note saying, “This doesn’t really serve your essay. Please revise.” Only there’s no editor; there’s just me, alone in a room, making decisions about what to say and how to say it and when it’s ready to send out into the world.
I’ve read enough personal essays to know what the obvious pitfalls are. Overdramatization, often marked by the use of hyperbolic words, such as ‘always,’ ‘never’ and ‘only.’ Underdramatization, what I call the “So what?” factor; this is when so little happens, the reader gets to the end and just doesn’t care. Then there’s Payback, which is the practice of using prose to air our grievances. This is the big one, the universal failing even among established writers. Whereas most of us get to the point where our drama is well-pitched, we struggle with how to treat the people in our lives.
Once, since I began this blog, my faithful reader Steve has caught me. He wrote to me a few hours after a post went up to say, “I didn’t like this one, Ann.” When I asked him to elaborate, he sent this:
I don’t like it because it has nothing to do with me. I think the difference between a personal essay and a journal entry is that a reader can take away something universal about the human condition from an essay. A journal entry is just for the author. And I think this is just for the author. It’s nothing to do with me or with most of the people I’ve ever known. I can’t find the connection to the wider world.
He was right, of course. I considered taking the post down but decided against it for two reasons. First, because I would have done so out of pride, in order to make my own writing record look better. And second, because after reviewing the essay (several times) I decided it would not damage anyone. The experience did make me cautious, however. So much so that it now takes me twice as long to blog. I’m perpetually scrutinizing my words, trying to edit out the “journal entry” quality, assessing my intent.
Just two days ago, I delayed publishing my post on monogamy for two and a half hours, so the man I called Diego would have an opportunity to read.
This is not to say that I’m showing my work to the people who appear in it and changing it as per their desires and whims. Writing is not a democratic process and to make it so would water it down, the way committees arrive at tepid, half-baked solutions in their attempts to reach consensus. My goal is not to please everyone but to tell real, sometimes difficult, stories that illuminate some universal truth.
As I knew he would, Diego understood that. He read and sent me a thoughtful message that said both, “Beautifully done” and “We should talk about this over lunch some time.”
When I taught writing I spent a lot of time trying to convince young writers that, while literature is an art, it’s not a martial art – that the pages of a short story or a novel are no place to defend yourself from an attack, real or imagined, and no place from which to launch an attack…
One of the best safeguards, I’ve found, is to avoid writing about situations that are ongoing. It’s a nice rule that I break all the time because, let’s face it: Nearly everything in life is ongoing. And just when you think you’re done with a particular person or issue or torment, whoever or whatever it is comes zinging back.
Take divorce, for example. That’s ongoing. You’re not married any more for a long, long time.
I’ve taken extraordinary care to treat my ex-husband kindly in literature. Probably the best essay I’ve ever written was about his alcoholism and its beautiful, flip side, how even after he disappeared I longed for, “my drunken husband’s drench of color.” The following year—after he resurfaced sober—the man read my first, semi-autobiographical novel in manuscript and left this note on the pages: “You made me sound too good.”
But that was 2005 and many things have happened since. I’ve remarried and so has he. Both of our sons have gone through tough late teen/young adult years. Most recently, my ex became a grandfather when his stepdaughter (to whom he’s very close) had two children—and an adoptive father, at 51, when that same young woman fell back into a dangerous lifestyle and relinquished her three-year-old and infant son.
We’ve had disagreements and I’ve felt flashes of anger, even hatred. But I’ve also had time to review the 13 years we spent together and come to this inevitable conclusion: Whatever my former husband’s failings, I was all too frequently a fearful bitch.
Most of the tangles between us will have to stay where they are, hidden, because I’m incapable of sorting out all the factors involved. I have no real understanding of what life with me was like from his perspective, though as I age I see glimmers. And they’re revealing. Here’s what I’m sure of: They way I would have written our story three years ago is very different from how I’d explain it today.
Which is why I don’t. And, thankfully, every time I get the urge some smart editor (or Steve) says, “No, don’t go there.”
You see? It’s dangerous for someone like me to blog.
I was done with The Forever Marriage, had sent it off and was awaiting my agent’s response, when John asked me about Olive.
So far, Olive is everyone’s favorite character in the book. A real lady, privileged yet empathic. She interferes dreadfully in the marriage between her awkward mathematician son and my heroine, fiercely wielding her money and her mother power, determined that she’s doing the right thing.
Where had Olive come from? John asked. We don’t know anyone like her and yet she seems so real, like someone you’ve actually met.
I remember, we were driving to Costco in Seattle, which was a good hour-long trip. I leaned back in my seat and suddenly I knew where I’d met Olive. She was my former mother-in-law. A quirkier, fictionalized version but still…The characteristics and foibles everyone so loved in Olive came from a woman I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.
It was a strange epiphany. Because to be blunt, I hadn’t thought I liked my mother-in-law that much.
And had I treated her in nonfiction, snared in her complex relationship to me and my kids, I doubt I would have done her justice. It would have been easy to blame and cast doubt on her motives, to criticize her as a parent and pick apart her blind loyalty to her son.
But in fiction, writing from a deeper place, I infused Olive with the characteristics I might have pilloried and described only what was fine in the unswerving determination of a mother. I allowed Olive to be human and fallible but I kept her dignity, her integrity, intact.
This likely is a case where fiction is closer to the truth than anything I could have spun out as memoir. And it points back to the great pitfall of nonfiction: Seeing things subjectively—using words to sting rather than to reveal or inspire—will fell a writer every time.
I need regular reminders. Most writers do. Last week, my friend, Kit, posted this quote from E.B. White:
A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
Lift people up, don’t lower them down. That’s my watchword. I keep repeating it under my breath.