The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Update, July 2016: New York Times essay: When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do

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