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.



12 Responses to “The Self on the Page/The Self in “Real Life””

  1. So very true, and so little understood…
    During a year of discussing my memoir in progress with a non-fiction class I often got comments like “Thank you for sharing this”, or “It was so brave of you to write this” in response to my writing some tough and painful scenes.
    I know the people who said those things meant well, but it made want to scream back “This is not a therapy session! Please talk about the writing, not the life experience!”
    And so, yes, as memoir writers we may be stark naked on the page, but we’re still fully clothed in real life…

  2. Monica Carr Says:

    The vicarious thrill from other’s misery seems to be at an all time high right now with the voyeurism of “Sheen” and his mental health. Says something about the times I suppose.

    I am thrilled to find you here. I was looking for a memoir class to light a fire under the memoir I started in your class, back in the day. It has changed and been shaped by my improved writing and style.

    Do you have any suggestions for a class just for wetting my whistle?

    Thanks, best to you and your family. Always love to soak up your writing and wise tips on the art of Memoir.

  3. Jennifer Cruz Says:

    Every person who reads should read this post first. Many people cannot seperate the author from the contexts of their writing. I think this creates friction within the writer. I have found myself shying from writing about certain events or circumstances because I know how people will react.
    Hopefully, more readers and writers will understand this.

  4. Friction is created when readers do not separate the author from the character. I get uncomfortable, to be honest, when people say things like “awe, I am so sorry” or “you must be so strong” I get this a lot from friends and even classmates. Although most of my writing is non-fiction, I sometimes hold back on what I want to write due to readers who take my it an autobiography. Is there any polite way of telling people who ask these questions not to take it as a pity story?

    • writingalife Says:

      I think it’s important for us to educate our readers. I think we can say, “Please remember that the time I’m writing about is not now. It’s back then. And I’m trying to represent what I went through then. That’s not who I am now. Who I am now is a writer.” And then change the subject.

  5. Danielle Says:

    The part when you spoke about the woman coming up to you after reading your memoir, Adultery, made me understand the self on the page as opposed to the real self better. I figured that since it’s a memoir, the self on the page is the same person who wrote it. Then I thought about Edi’s cautioning against writing about things that have recently happened. Memoir requires the writer to step back and refelct a lot. Not just over a course of a few days or weeks, but perhaps years. Reflection allows the writer to understand the person on the page better, and the situation the writer was in. So, naturally, the self on the page would differ from the real self because the real self is no longer that person on the page.

  6. ashley Leavitt Says:

    In my “real life,” I hate to be misunderstood. In my writing, I hate to be misrepresented. For a long while, I avoided writing about really difficult things. I feared that writing the taboo would result in my real self being mistaken for the memory of myself. I was right, and I was wrong. But most importantly, I have stopped speculating so much on what other peoples’ opinions may or may not be about the characters in my narrative, and instead gave myself permission to be who I am presently, a budding writer.
    As the subject of my memoir becomes more real, more raw, more intimate, the painful parts of my past that had power over my present self begin to slough away revealing a more confidant, more authentic timely me. Hence, I fear less and less the rejection of those readers (who may even be depicted in my memoir) who do not, or can not, discern the difference between the craft of writing and the writer –me. It has also allowed me to better appreciate memoir as a genera of literary art, verses autobiography, historical chronicle, or even personal confessional.

  7. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    The self on paper is not too different from the self in reality in my case. The only difference is the ‘reality’ self is more aware of their feelings of anger and resentment. When writing my memoir, I neglected self on paper for a while because my ‘reality’does not like attention. I try to hide. I almost harmed my writing by hiding self on paper. I have learned: one’s memoir will not function if self is not on paper.

    Thank You Louise.

  8. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    Hello Louise,
    I agree with the content of your blog and especially love the quote by Virginia Woolf. We all contain an infinite amount of “selves” that we could be, and the self that we think we are is taken from our life experiences.

    I think that you are right when you say that the media has conditioned people to say “you poor thing” to anyone who has suffered difficulty. This phrase implies that the person is weak, but the opposite is true. To sit down and write about difficult experiences means that not only did we survive them, but we have the courage to sit down with these memories and put them onto paper for others to experience. As memoir writers, we are welcoming others to journey into our past and to experience life through our eyes for a short while. Pity is best saved for the weak, but empathy is fit for the strong.

  9. Chloe DeFilippis Says:

    Recently, I’ve begun some minor preparations for a memoir that I want to write over the summer. This particular memoir, although always near the front of my mind, has induced fear within me. I know this fear rises out of one concern: the self on the page versus the self in ‘real life.’ With memoir writing, people often blur the writer-self with the character of the writer, which is unsettling to me. Knowing that people may confuse the young girl I was with the young woman I am now bothers me. Reading your statement, “But I was no longer that woman,” really struck me. That sentence illustrates two important points: 1) We can change and 2) We do change. The beauty of memoir, I feel, is that it represents not only what an individual experienced and not only who that individual was, but, also, growth and survival. By writing memoir, we show people that yes, this happened, yes, I survived, and yes, I healed. I agree with you wholeheartedly, “We don’t want anyone’s sympathy…We want empathy from our readers.”

  10. Jo Sanders Says:

    Understanding this was one of my biggest feats in allowing my memoir to emerge. I had to pry myself from my character and let go so that she could fully develop. I realize how important it is to construct those boundaries to protect the work. It also helps to do this with others. When I discuss my work with other we try to always keep the character or narrative voice separate. Somehow it even seems to strengthen the work and make it more believable in a sense as a work outside of the author. I also believe that this distance is crucial to the healing process if the topic is a traumatic one. Writing about difficult situations and removing myself from the character seemed to help me better understand my pain and my work.

    • Peter Orozco Says:

      This is the most perfect blog post for me to come across. Today, I will be reading an excerpt from my memoir that I wrote for my memoir class. I was worried that the audience would associate the character in my memoir with the person I am today. And after reading this blog, the fact is that they probably will. There is no trying to avoid the issue, and understanding that people will correlate me to my character prepares me to deal with it. I know that I am no longer that character in my memoir, and that is the most important thing to take away from this.

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