Saturday, December 11, 2010

Writers are Vampires

Last night I read Jim Murdoch’s wonderful blog post about our 'better halves'. In it he lists a number of writers and the women who are, to use that old expression, ‘the wind beneath their wings’.

Life as the spouse of a writer is a tricky one, especially when both are writers. Jim capped his post off by telling us about his wife of fourteen years, also a writer, Carrie Berry.

Jim and I have communicated long and hard about the nature of the blogosphere and the autobiographical. Jim describes himself as a private man and suddenly there it is: he is telling us something more personal – which he does from time to time – and again, I am enthralled by the vagaries of this space, the blogosphere, in which we reveal so much about ourselves, even as we conceal so much as well.

I met a writer, Lucy Sussex, at LaTrobe last week and we talked about the business of fictionalising people from our lives in order to protect them and us from the sorts of upsets that occur when someone is seen to be portrayed unfairly,when we are forced through the written word to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes, and we do not like what we see there.

Lucy Sussex describes writers as ‘vampires’. We suck the lifeblood out of people. We feed off others. I shudder to think this may be true.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’. Non-fiction, she argues ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus writes ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

I say of myself as an autobiographer – and I’ve heard this said of other writers, like Helen Garner – to some extent we get away with it because we write about ourselves with ‘unflinching honesty’. Certainly Garner writes the most embarrassing things about herself that some might consider highly self-critical. But I know all too well that we are selective about our self-criticisms when we write.

I will not write in my blog about the things that ‘really’ trouble me, the things of which I feel most ashamed. I might write about things that once caused me to feel shame but over time and often times through the writing itself I have overcome that shame. I will not pass on other shameful secrets that resonate for me here now.

I think of WikiLeaks and the great kafuffle in the world about all this ‘indecent exposure’. We are a puritanical lot, by and large, and full of contradictions. The things we will tolerate as opposed to the things that unsettle us.

I gather here in Australia, Julian Assange is considered something of a hero, a man in search of freedom of speech, a whistle blower extraordinaire; whereas in the US he is considered a dangerous force. Noam Chomsky who spoke on the radio here during the week does not see Assange negatively, but Chomsky reckons a good proportion of Americans do. And yet America is home to freedom of speech.

I doubt that there is such a thing as free speech. We might have the right to speak as we please in certain ‘democratic’ countries, but there are always consequences to whatever we say, and on top of that there are also the necessary restrictions on freedom of speech when the speaking out hurts others, such as in situations of racial vilification and the like. And then, how is there freedom for the writer who uses another person’s experience to colour their story, sometimes unwittingly?

I am working on a chapter in my thesis on shame. Shame links to the desire for revenge, through what Helen Block Lewis has described as ‘humiliation fury’, the fury we feel after we have had our noses rubbed into our vulnerability and are left reeling from the abuse, assaulted, belittled, and shamed.

The anonymity of the Internet might allow us to hide our shame and to hide from our shame, but oftentimes it reinforces the shame for me. The number of times I sit at the keyboard reading back over something I have posted and cringe at what I have put there is equaled only by the shame I feel on behalf of others whom I consider have written too explicitly, and yet I persist in taking off my psychological clothes, revealing these inner thoughts on line, even as I know that there are experiences that look one way to me, but will be read in a different way by others.

Others will critique my perspective in ways I had not anticipated. Again, I cringe at my own willingness to expose myself in this way and yet without the autobiographical how can we learn about ourselves through other people’s internal worlds, however constructed they may be.
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