The Line Between Gratuitous and Warranted
The only thing I ever read in the New York Times (if I can help it) is the weekly Opinionator blog. Each week, a writer muses on a different subject. Last weekend’s topic was writing about people after they’ve died and cannot public respond to your verbal portrait. The writer, Ken Budd, discusses the act of dissecting his father’s life in his memoir since his own story is so closely entwined in the story of his family.
We’ve already tried to feel for the line between where one person’s story ends and the blogger’s story begins, so that part didn’t really interest me. But something Budd said in the middle raised my eyebrows.
Writing a memoir is a selfish act. For the memoir to work, to truly be alive, the honesty of the writing must outweigh the feelings of your subjects. As the central figure, you have to write what scares you: the drama resides in the dark places where you’re least comfortable. And that means exposing yourself. It’s like ripping off the front of your house and saying, “O.K., here we are, take a look — I’ll be in the shower if you want a closer view.” If you can’t do that — if you’re unwilling to bleed, naked, on the page — why write memoir?
It made me think of that other line — the one between gratuitous sharing (oversharing, for instance) and warranted sharing. How much do you hold back? How much do you lay it all bare? And is that really noble, admirable, if you save nothing for yourself but give people access to every nook and cranny of your brain? How naked should we be with naked blogging?
I mean, there’s naked and then there’s naked. There’s no clothes on but you’re waxed and plucked and buffed, and there’s no clothes on and you haven’t showered in a few days.
I think the answer will be different for every person, and how reserved you are also comes into play. I know where the line is for myself, but I also thought about it in terms of the blogs I read. The ones closest to my heart are honest without making me feel like a voyeur. They’re frank without making me feel as if they’re telling me things just for page views. They’re the people I learn from; not shy away from.
Again, we’ll all have a different reaction to the same blog: what one person thinks is melodrama will be another person’s best-read-all-day. You may think that I’m a horrific oversharer even if I see myself as fairly circumspect.
But all of that aside, I guess I disagree with Budd. I don’t think that the honesty of the writing must outweigh the feelings of the subjects. The best post, for me, is one where I don’t cringe thinking about how the subjects might feel as they read those words about themselves. Because if I’m cringing, I’m not looking closely. And a good memoir is one that opens my eyes and makes me lean in; not one that makes me turn away.
Oh, opinionators, what is your opinion?