Tag Archives: Richard Hugo

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

Writer’s High: Are Writers Having Enough Fun?

I’m gonna stake the claim: Writing, the act of doing the writing, is fun, and writers who aren’t having fun may be doing it wrong.

I find something enjoyable, fulfilling, satisfying — in other words, fun — about the act of letting my brain-words flow out onto the paper. Sometimes even editing and rewriting can be fun — fun not in the light sense of how eating ice cream is fun, but fun in the sense that being engaged in writing can completely absorb my attention and help me forget my worries (including any ego-worries about whether anyone will read what I write).

The reason I write is because I like to write. I write because it’s fun. Of course, not every single thing I write is fun; sometimes a person has to create a text to match an assignment or to fulfill a purpose in having an effect on a reader. But when I am writing on my own, I feel no need to write for anybody but myself.

Perhaps, Dear Reader, you’ve read enough of my posts to have already sensed that I had this priority. While I do appreciate knowing that readers have found what I wrote interesting or valuable, I don’t primarily write to appeal to readers. I don’t want to think about others when I write. (Richard Hugo writes: “Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing,
glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page.”) I want to think about what I find interesting. I want to be free to go wherever my writing and my thinking lead me. If that also interests others, OK.

And writing whatever I want to write is glorious. The things I write — journals, notes, blog posts, etc. — help clear my mind of extraneous concerns and concepts, but they also teach me new things — I have insights, epiphanies, that help me see the familiar world in new ways. It’s pretty terrific — it’s actually heart-poundingly exciting at times. I’ve had writing experiences (not yet with this blog post!) that feel transformative, transcendent, experiences that are beyond my normal daily mindset. Perhaps this is like “runner’s high” for those who use our minds rather than our legs.

I knew I liked to write but I got some insight into why after reading this essay by Alan Shapiro, in which he talks about the value of having one’s attention fully absorbed into one’s writing.

I recently posted a three-year-old piece I had written about fame, and I knew the desire for fame was juvenile. But since posting that, I’ve realized that fame may be actually the last thing I want if I just want to write. Publishing and promoting a book, giving readings, trying to make more money from writing — these are all things that actually take away time from my writing. If what I actually love is just the writing, I may not want to be famous, or even publish my work in any form more complex than this blog. Here are my words; I don’t need to have to do anything more.

It’s possible that some of my desire to be a Famous Writer comes from having taken literature classes where the teachers revered the Wise Writer and we read his (almost always it was “his”) writings that were canonical, revered (another attitude I had to get over was thinking that these earlier writers were special, were doing something truly Great. But there’s no need to think of them that way. They were just writers, putting words on paper, as I do. Some of their works are highly valued by others; some weren’t. I recall reading somewhere Whitman’s opinion that his frequently anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” wasn’t his favorite work of his poems). In wanting fame, I must be partly thinking that if I become famous, my works would live on (to be assigned to students who’d rather be choosing their own reading materials).

But of course, worrying about one’s legacy is complete bullshit. What will I care whether people read my works when I’m dead — I’ll be dead! My time for writing is while I’m alive, and writing is one way in which I love spending the life-time that is allotted to me.

There’s a famous quote by Sam Johnson — “No man but a blockhead every wrote, except for money” — but this makes sense only if one doesn’t actually like writing. I love it enough to do it for free. I’m not saying I wouldn’t accept a hefty advance from any publishers reading this blog who find it brilliant beyond belief, but I’m saying that an advance is not my goal.

But I can’t control that. What I can do is use what free time I have to get the deepest satisfaction I can from writing, and that satisfaction comes from just doing it.

Links: 6 April 2013: Miracles, eggheads, and so much more

1. This post points out some goofy thinking about meaning of miracles and science.

2. The cultural status of the intellectual elite, the “egghead.”

3. Some of Roger Ebert’s advice on writing. Also, this article contains some more of Ebert’s thinking about writing and writing careers, such as:

He emphasized that such ephemera like “career” and “success” were mostly beside the point. “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It’s the only thing you can control.”

4. An older piece attempting to explain why Nietzsche gets celebrated by those who misunderstand him.

5. I’m cautious by anyone who makes assertions about reality, but I’m usually pretty open to those who find fault in others’ reality-assertions. Here is a take-down of people who would misunderstand and/or distort vaccines and climate-science.

6. A justifiably angry piece about the difficulties of seeking a tenure-track job in literature (though this probably applies to many parts of academia now):

During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why.

The bold-emphasis above is mine. The more I learn to trust my own instincts in my creative writing (and it took a while to overcome my training in the standards of journalism — in learning to do what others thought was valuable — and to learn to trust my own standards), the more I question the value of what exactly it is that education does. We teachers, after all, mostly can only teach students to become more like a model student, and we mostly don’t know what that is, but it often resembles what the teacher him-/herself is capable of, as R. Hugo wrote:

You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.

Of course, much of what we teachers do is widely valuable, but I suspect that this gets less better the higher one gets into academia. And when I occasionally consider getting a creative writing MFA, I remind myself that the writing I do and want to do and need to do doesn’t really have much to do with the writing that I would be being trained to do in an MFA program. I’m not saying these aren’t ever useful, but I suspect such programs can’t help people develop as writers unless one wants to write texts that are very much like the texts produced by writing faculty members who need to write things that tenure committees will agree have general value.

Let’s bluntly overstate my point: I’m asserting here that grad schools are not receptive to the new and unusual ideas that I most love reading in others’ texts and I most love having as I write texts.

(P.S. A small quibble with the Slate article: If there was a “boom of the late 1990s” with hiring associate professors, that was not the message of Bérubé and Cary Nelson in their book The Employment of English, which advised  in 1997 (if I remember correctly) English lit grad students seek employment in high schools rather than in colleges.