The Self on the Page/The Self in “Real Life”
January 26, 2011
If I could help readers of memoir understand only one thing about the art of memoir, it would be this: the self the writer presents on the page is not the self the writer is in “real” life. We memoirists are helped, too, if we understand this about our art. Our art is not the act of presenting the selves we “really” are to our audiences. Our art is the act of presenting a self on the page that is the authentic self for the particular work we’re writing.
It’s as simple as this. I’m not the same person in the classroom as I am at the dinner table. The classroom elicits certain appropriate teacherly behaviors from me. The dinner table, others. And the self I am when I eat dinner at home is, of course, a different self from the self I take to dinner with, say, students.
I once had dinner with a group of students. At the end of the meal, one exasperated student said to me, “You’re not as smart or as funny as you are in class.” No kidding. I told her that in the classroom, it’s my job to be smart and to provide a certain amount of pleasure so that a great deal of learning can occur. At dinner with students, I’m content to kick back and say nothing – in much of my life, apart from the classroom, I’m more of an observer than a participant.
I’m impelled to write this because when we hand our work to others to read, I want us to be forewarned that many of our readers/friends/publishers/editors/publicists, smart people who should know better, will confuse the self we present on the page with the self we are in “real” life. (Virginia Woolf had it right: we are innumerable selves.)
I remember once, after I published Adultery, my memoir about my husband’s infidelity, that was also a meditation on what I believed infidelity to be, a reader came up to me after a reading and said, “Oh you poor, poor thing.” I was taken aback; I didn’t know what she meant. And then I realized that she assumed that it was the vulnerable, cheated-upon wife in the pages of that book whom she thought she was meeting. I was, at the time, so beyond that woman I’d portrayed on the page. I am, in “real life,” very often tough-minded. By the time I wrote Adultery, I’d survived far, far more in my life that my husband’s adultery. The portrait I’d painted of the “cheated-upon wife” was accurate, true to the experience I’d lived through. But I was no longer that woman. I was, because of the alchemy of writing, capable of slipping back into the skin of that former self, capable of writing an empathic portrait of her, capable of remembering what she’d lived through. But I was stunned by her not understanding the difference between art and life.
This is a particular problem with memoir. Readers, people in general, tend to like to be voyeurs of other people’s misery. Maybe it makes us feel better about our own challenges if we can see others as worse off than ourselves. Maybe it prevents us from taking a needed look at what we need to think about in our own lives. But it’s been my experience – and it’s frustrating, no, sometimes even infuriating – that readers and critics, as they read memoir, tend to believe that the writer and the character of the writer on the page are one and the same. Critics, too, haven’t found a language to talk about the art of memoir. They tend, not to criticize the work, but to criticize the life. They write about how so-and-so was hard-hearted in dealing with such-and-such rather than writing about how the memoirist depicted how s/he was hard-hearted in dealing with such-and-such. And that’s a world of difference.
Teachers must be especially sensitive here. We must do everything we can to guide discourse in our classrooms to reinforce the fact that the self on the page is not the self who wrote the page. We can use words like “the character of the mother,” “your character,” to reinforce this. We need, too, to stop ourselves from rushing in and assuming that the writer who writes about difficult material needs our help. We need to be professional, yes; but we need to make sure we respect a student writer’s boundaries. “I want to hear more about what the character of the father did” is different from “I want to hear what your father did.”
I once gave a speech at a conference. A person attending the conference came up to me to talk. She told me that she taught Vertigo and she wanted me to know that her male students “didn’t like me at all.” What didn’t they like, I asked. They didn’t like how sexual I was as a teenager.”
I was left speechless, something rare with me. I wanted to say, “But I’m not the kid I depicted.” I wanted to plead my own case. But then I got mad and wanted to say, What kind of a teacher are you that you didn’t ask them the reason that I, as a memoirist, might have depicted myself this way on the page? What kind of a teacher are you that you didn’t ask them to think through their adverse reaction? What kind of a teacher are you that you didn’t ask what might be gained by representing one kind of teenage sexuality authentically? What kind of a teacher are you that you didn’t ask them to think about why they rushed to judgment?
But I think that I want this little essay to serve as a reminder that many readers will react to us as memoirists inappropriately so that we can prepare ourselves in advance.
This is especially true if we write about incest, about abuse, about wives or husbands who have left us, about illness, about family member’s suicides. When we write tough-minded, honest testimonies of hard stuff, strange things might happen to us when we bring our work to the world. The editor, a very smart person, who ought to know better, will think that we are not fit to negotiate the world because we’ve written about something very hard to write about.
There is, what I’ve come to call the “oh you poor thing” look that I’ve gotten from people who ought to know better. That look they have when they come up to me and give me that look and touch me (inappropriately), as if to say “There, there, my dear.” As if because I’ve written about incest, violence, suicide, adultery, I’m more damaged than they are.
The media encourages this, encourages those of us brave enough and strong enough to write testimony to treat us as “oh you poor things.”
We – those of us who’ve sat at our desk for days, weeks, months, years, to give voice to difficulty, to oppression, to historical moments that have damaged people – are not “poor things.” We’re tough. We’re resilient. We’re proud. We don’t want anyone’s sympathy. What we want is something far more difficult: we want empathy from our readers. We want our readers to step into the shoes we used to wear and live the lives we’ve lived along with us. We want our readers to see that we’re not the selves we describe on the page, that through the very act of writing, something huge, something powerful, something transformative has happened to us.
Save your pity for yourself, I want to say, but don’t. You’re wasting it on me.