Vivian Gornick reportedly delivered a talk about writing memoir and fielded an innocent question about her memoir Fierce Attachments. “How can you so precisely recall conversations with your mother?” a reporter asked. She answered she didn’t remember. She recollected some of what she reported and the spirit of the rest of it. She added particulars to fulfill that spirit.
Though her “creativity” doesn’t attain the same scale as David Sedaris’ tall tales or James Frey’s dastardly autobiography, her confession is nonetheless startling. If we rely on spirit to tell the truth of an event, where does spirit come from? What happens when impressions become conclusions? Can raw experience transform into carefully orchestrated and effective composition without losing something as well? What if our spirit is to amuse or persuade or resolve or please or even complete?
Writing is orderly. You have the broadest choices to make about the subject and what to leave in and take out. You have tiny, cumulative choices as you select words, sequence words into sentences, and stack sentences in paragraphs. Even if you could remain absolutely objective, writing necessitates some system, authority, a prime mover.
But the deeper, more abstract compulsions are more devastating. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face told the story of a series of surgeries that left the author’s face disfigured. For most of the book Grealy wrestles with her fate more courageously than Jacob or Job. She takes on all-comers—every dangerous fight with blame, self-pity, or pollyanna-ism ends in a stand-off. She stays out of the grip of sentimentality by staring it down.
For most of the book, anyway.
Near the end, Grealy’s work becomes—to me—a little tinny. Her prose can’t bear quite the same weight as she begins to shed complexity for clarity and completion.
Perhaps she sought only a formal conclusion and the most gentle and subtle resolution, not an answer. She probably didn’t accept or believe in real life restitution, but as the book closed, it became much harder to distinguish between the structure imposed by writing, the structure imposed by artistry, the structure imposed by hope, and the structure imposed by a desire to please. She wanted something. Her readers, she knew, would want something. To me, it felt as though she couldn’t resist giving in.
Grealy was an instructor where I went to graduate school, and, though the faculty felt very warmly toward her, she seemed prickly to many students. She was brilliant, perceptive, and funny. But I’ll never forget her yelling at classmates for whispering in the library. Peremptory reactions after lectures and notorious comments on student work underlined her toughness. I wondered if her confidence and—I’m sorry to risk offending those who knew her better—her arrogance helped her accept herself. Or whether acceptance was only possible in writing.
Sadly, Grealy’s overdose in 2002 casts darker shadows on every affirmation of those last chapters. While Sedaris, Frey, and Gornick may commit errors of fact, what happens if an author slips into errors of spirit?
Americans laughed when Charles Barkley, the former NBA star, said he’d been misquoted in his autobiography, but should we have laughed? It seems easy to misquote ourselves when we aim for gravitas and a well-shaped urn decorated with acceptable sentiment.
And in a nation of overwhelming life-hype, it’s hard to claim ignorance of what’s expected of us. The rewards are greater for playing nice. It’s easier too.
I’m not immune. I think sometimes about shadowy posts that might let my dis-ease show, but I press the ejector button again and again. For all my talk to students about choosing topics according to what you can’t figure out, can’t face, or don’t want to discuss, I’m a coward. Thinking how I might be received, I won’t open the closet for another ugly monster.
Saying what you mean is hard enough when you don’t know what you mean. It’s even harder when you DO know, and dare not say.