Does Writing Make Us Lie?

Lucy Grealy (1963-2002)

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.



Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Essays, Fiction writing, Genius, Identity, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

6 responses to “Does Writing Make Us Lie?

  1. Thoughtful post. The issues of memory and writing are very much the theme of Julian Barnes’ Booker Man prize winning novella, “The Sense of an Ending”, which has haunted me ever since in its unresolvedness.

    Thanks for this.

    • dmarshall58

      I read A Sense of an Ending over spring break, and it was a big inspiration to me in what I’m writing now. Barnes is one of my favorite writers, and his thoughts on memory seem especially astute. We can rarely test our memories against what really happened–time won’t allow it–so we have to invent somewhat. And the temptation to adapt memory to present circumstances is powerful and insidious.

  2. You’re not a coward, David. You’re protecting your name, your role and identity. And here’s the argument for pseudonymity. Let the monster out but blame the release on an imagined writer. Yes it’s a lie. But who’s it going to hurt? And, after that one little lie, think of the truths that can follow. Can you do that? Can I do that (again)?

    You’re right about Lucy’s book, which gutted me, nonetheless. And she had attitude, for sure, that went along with talent and intellect and made for sharp critiques, but I found she liked to parlay and boy, could she dance.

    • dmarshall58

      See, that’s why I could never be a book critic–I’d be upset about turning people away from books when, really, every book is right in its way. The book also “gutted me,” and I hope I didn’t sound entirely dismissive of it. I’ve taught it, and many students relate to it in vivid and interesting ways.

      I’m glad you responded, as you knew Lucy Grealy much better than I did. If it’s hard to be fair to a book, then it’s even harder to be fair to an author, especially one who experienced life in ways most of us could never understand.

      As for being cowardly, I love my family (and my job) too much to write what I might really like to say. And I’m afraid to put it all down when another year, week, or even another day might move me to reconsider. I admire people who have that sort of courage.

      It’s always great to hear from you, Paul.

      • You teach that book, David? Do your students know how lucky they are? What I would give to have one of their seats.

        And placing love above a personal agenda, desire, or need takes a quiet kind of courage, too. It shows care and reticence, not fear.

      • dmarshall58

        It’s been some years now, but I taught it in an elective about identity in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. It had a clever title,”The Human Mask,” designed to attract high school students. I taught Spalding Gray in the course as well.

        The best semester was when, through some strange scheduling glitch, I ended up with a class of 15 women. Their thoughts about the ways we forge and promote our identities stick with me. Lucy Grealy seemed especially inspiring that time around.

        As for wanting to have one of my student’s seats, I’m sure there are days when they would be more than willing to give one up. I’m glad it’s summer.

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