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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.

You know?

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?

12 comments

1 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 12.04.13 at 9:59 am }

I don’t think an absolute statement here makes much sense. This stuff is so contextualised. Yes, you have to be open to revealing some sort of “inside story” and it may well be that if you’re not comfortable revealing some particular thing you’re better not writing the memoir – because there’s not much in it without that reveal.

But no memoir ever reveals each last, embarrassing moment, or every tiny, dark secret. It has to be relevant to the narrative and that implies some sort of editorial process. Essentially, the author still chooses what the story’s about, and that choice can be mindful of the details that will drive each alternative arc.

2 gwinne { 12.04.13 at 10:30 am }

Yeah, this piece got to me too.

And I do like how you put it, about nudity.

In the end, I think all memoir (and blogging and tweeting and facebook-ing and talking to friends and family and…) is a version of self. I know what honesty is in the writing but not in the reading; I know what reads honestly but it’s not necessarily “real.”

And context is everything. There was a line–a single sentence– (in the book I’ll be sending you soon! soon!) about my sister that, in the end, just seemed gratuitous. Had very little to do with the major storyline, and the book would work fine without it. So I cut and rephrased.

But. I have another (currently unpublished) piece which is largely about my sister. Among other things, it reflects on the ethics of writing about one’s sibling and the line between her story and mine. It’s a sticky, slippery thing. Even though it doesn’t say anything about her that anyone who knows her doesn’t already know, she would HATE me for publishing it and I don’t know that I will. But I certainly did need to write it.

3 Heather { 12.04.13 at 10:47 am }

I agree with the comment above about context. If it fits within the narrative than it has a place. Therefore, to me, no matter how revealing if it helps me understand where the author is coming from then it should be in there.
However, if the narrative is largely a finger pointing exercise then it switches from memoir to tabloid to me. Yes, people do horrible things to others. However, I want to know how it effected the author. The specific act may not be relevant.
There is a blogger that I read and love. She is open and honest about her troubles (and happy times). But guess what? I have no idea what exactly happened to her. At first it bothered me. Then I continued to read and realized it didn’t matter. What mattered was learning how she was overcoming these obstacles, these road blocks.

4 Lori Lavender Luz { 12.04.13 at 11:04 am }

Oooh. This is a line I hadn’t previously thought of.

And like my recent post on bullying, which I tried to write without doing any bullying myself, I can’t exactly define where that line is, but I knows it when I sees it.

“The ones closest to my heart are honest without making me feel like a voyeur.” — Yes, this.

As to Budd’s statement, I think if you can’t factor the subjects’ feelings into the your (the writer’s) honesty, you shouldn’t publish the piece.

5 Little Miss Wordy { 12.04.13 at 12:38 pm }

“And a good memoir is one that opens my eyes and makes me lean in; not one that makes me turn away.”

In my opinion, this line says it all. I find that when I write, there is always a piece of me, or two or three, being exposed. I’m not sure I know how to write if I’m not including something personal on some level. I always write with heart, whether that’s a blessing or a curse remains to be seen. However, lately I find I cringe a lot with certain blog posts. Like you said, there’s naked and then there’s naked.

6 Pepper { 12.04.13 at 2:04 pm }

This line has come up a lot in my family recently. I have a family member diagnosed with a terminal illness who is taking the opportunity to blog (under her own, full name) about her treatment – but also about her life and her life growing up. She remembers things fairly differently than the rest of us who were there and has said some really hurtful, offensive things in the name of “honesty.” She also has repeatedly mentioned that she feels owed information related to other family business – health, financial, etc.- but people are keeping secrets from her.

I happen to disagree as I believe there is a difference between keeping secrets and personal privacy. But, as someone who kept some pretty big secrets for what I still maintain are good reasons, I also think we’re due our own decision on what to share and what not to share.

So all that is to say, sometimes it’s too much but if you’re the one writing it, unfortunately for those of us uncomfortably reading, it’s your choice.

7 Constant { 12.04.13 at 2:25 pm }

So much food for thought here. This is something that I constantly struggle with … trying to be sensitive but honest at the same time.

I really like how you put this here: “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.” Yes! Yes! In this world of infertility where each of us has our own personal journey, we have so much to learn from each other. But when it gets too personal (and I have been guilty of that myself), there suddenly isn’t much left to learn, but there certainly is a lot to feel voyeurish about … which kinda makes me, a reader, feel icky.

8 Queenie { 12.04.13 at 10:26 pm }

I think for me the line is about the impact on other people. If it’s my story, I’m comfortable being bare. If it’s partially someone else’s, I try to keep the focus on me, and omit their details. Or, I don’t write about it, if there is no way to delicately discuss it. A few months ago, something really awful happened to a family member, and I really wanted to write about the experience and the aftermath. But, it was terrible and highly personal, and I didn’t want a permanent record out there, because while it’s partially my story, most of it belongs to someone else. In other words, I try to be sensitive. Memoir isn’t about laying everything bare. It’s another form of the highlight reel.

9 St. E { 12.04.13 at 11:37 pm }

I think I will always like to factor in the element of context in the sharing bit.

Also, revealing people’s real life identities, as in their name, complete relationship can be hurtful to people who are caught off – guard. If you can’t complete your story without putting them in, consider how valid your own story is, and why you are sharing it in the first place.

My aunt published a book on a specific dimension of her life, and the selective sharing negatively rubbed onto number of people including one of her own son, my mother and me too. There are limited copies in circulation, and the book went to mostly people from the family or her own circle of friends, so we are just glad about it.

10 Sara { 12.05.13 at 9:41 am }

I have been thinking about this issue ever since I read Salman Rushdie’s memoir. I have always loved Salman Rushdie’s novels, but after reading his memoir, I don’t think that I love Salman Rushdie the person at all. I feel that I now have far too much information about his ex-wives, two of which are public figures in their own right, than a person should, and I did not sign up for that when I bought the book. To be fair to Mr. Rushdie, he exposes his own flaws and foibles with brutal honesty–a level of honesty that I cannot imagine achieving myself. However, it is one thing to expose oneself, and a very different thing to expose one’s former intimates. Their behavior may have been part of his story, even a crucial part, in his mind, but I still felt that much of the information that he provided was gratuitous to the overall narrative, especially given the Roshomon-like nature of the truth in human relationships. I wish he had held back a bit.

11 Emily { 12.05.13 at 4:01 pm }

This is great, Mel! Really thought-provoking and interesting. Thanks!

12 Justine { 12.06.13 at 11:05 pm }

I think the best blogs, and the best memoirs, are good because they’re about the memoirist. And because they allow us to understand that the writing is about memory. And that memory is highly subjective. So that what we write about other people is the truth as we remember it, not the truth as the other people might tell it. That reflectiveness, the degree to which we are willing to make our own positionality transparent, to me, makes something worth reading, because it’s something we can learn from. We get sucked into the story, but never once do we forget: “this is a complicated, flawed human being.”

I think that there are times when it could be effective to be both naked and unshowered. As long as that’s not *all* we are.

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