Friday, April 24, 2015

Writing and Risk

Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone. – E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

This past month I finished reading (or listening to) the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. At one point he talks about encouraging his brother Orion to include all the dark parts of his life story when writing his autobiography, sort of like the advice from E.M. Cioran above. Twain, however, acknowledged that he himself would not dare to include such material in his own autobiography, inasmuch as his aim would be to put himself into a much more favorable light with his readers.

So what's the correct way to write about one's life? There's plenty to be ashamed of in most lives. Do we leave that material on the cutting room floor for the proverbial trash bin? These are certainly not the parts we highlight when meeting people for the first time, and it seems a curious bit of advice to be telling strangers (in a book) about things you don't even share with friends.

I've always carried the notion that our lives are something akin to a retail store with three aspects. The storefront is designed to invite people in. It projects something of an image to people passing by on the sidewalk. The image should correspond to the contents inside the store, of course. You wouldn't put women's clothing in the storefront of a shoe store.

The store itself also has a back room, or downstairs, where inventory and other items are stored. It's an "employees only" space, and is often a bit cluttered, occasionally a mess even. It's not a perfect metaphor, but I've found it useful.

Nevertheless, there's another way to approach the matter. When you study paintings by the Dutch masters, it's the contrast between darkness and light that makes the images pop, makes the story so vivid,

Earlier this week I interviewed the author of a memoir who told the story of what it was like to grow up in a home where his mother was a hoarder.  It's Eddy Gilmore's explicit candor that gives the book its shock value, and makes the emancipation he has achieved all the more powerful.

Naturally it isn't just the authors of books who have to wrestle with where to draw the line as far as what to disclose and what to set aside. We see it continually here in social media where people bare their souls in discussions that may well be better left "off the record." Here's a web forum where this very matter is being dissected: How truthful and honest should we be?

A word that comes to mind for me at this point is circumspect. It means "wary and unwilling to take risks." People who have been burned will not respond well to someone prodding them to "be vulnerable and expand your world."

At the end of the day it's a matter of finding balance. If we spend a lifetime concealing who we really are and what we really feel, it can put us in a fairly lonely place. The deepest and most rewarding friendships are built on trust, and it's in that context we can take those risks and drop the barriers that isolate us from one another. In that context we can experience the deep healing of ontological affirmation.

Just a seed from the mind farm. What do you think?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is an interesting topic! I think I'll probably spend my entire life wrestling with it. I agree completely with the quote at the top:

Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone

I wish I had seen this earlier, but after much soul-searching I ultimately came to the same conclusion. I don't think my book, The Emancipation of a Buried Man, would be worth reading otherwise. As you say so well, "The contrast between darkness and light makes the images pop." Thanks for insight. I found this highly affirming.

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