My Writing Salon Personal Essay class this session has been particularly stimulating--thoughtful people raising wonderful questions. The other night one of the students in that class talked about not wanting to write her experiences so that they could be "consumed" the way Americans consume everything; memoirs by third world people; photographs of exotic foreign beauties, or suffering children; women with bundles on their heads; works of art; cheap labor, etc.
Since I work at shaping my experiences into a form that can be sold in the marketplace of publishing, I was intrigued and a bit chagrined to reflect on the ways I might be whoring out my personal experiences. The question is relevant.
It's true we live in a consumer culture, a capitalist economy in which everything is bought and sold, and advertized and "spun." It's hard for things to be just what they are: a rock, a tree, a baby, a face. That's not glamorous enough. As a poet, I can take that rock, that tree, that face, and spin words around it, make it special, and sell it. The selling it part comes from the economy we live in. If I were in an African village, I would just tell the story as part of my social currency and go on hunter-gathering or midwifing babies or whatever else it is I would do. But since I'm a cultural worker in a capitalist economy, my job has become trying to spin gold out of the straw of everyday experience, and sell it to the highest bidder.
One of my students in the Writing Salon class is a historian; another is an anthropologist. What these disciplines have in common with journalism is the pretense of objectivity: there is a truth and I am going to find it, interpret it, and hand it over to you, Dear Reader.
In truth, there is no one Truth. But how do you spin and sell that?
In the last several decades, there has been a movement afoot in academia as well as in journalism to acknowledge that absolute objectivity does not exist, that everything is filtered through the lense of the person who views it. It's the Heisenberg principle; observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon, and so you have to factor that in, and while you're at it, what about the observer. Who is s/he and what brought them there?
As soon as I could get away from "straight journalism" (I published human interest stories in The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald back in the 80s,) and into personal essay, I went for that form with great relief. Whereas grinding out "objective" stories in which I erased my presence, my tape recorder, and all the relevant, colorful, real information of the encounter between myself and the subject felt false, being able to use "I" and own my own responses felt more honest.
Of course with personal essay, you run the risk of seeming--or being--self-indulgent. In many ways it is a self-indulgent form, just as confessional poetry can be. But whether a pice is self-indulgent or good art depends on a subtle adjustment of weight on the part of the writer. If you have an axe to grind, are just confessing your personal failings or desires, then it's like writing a diary--a great exercise in self-expression maybe, but what use is it to the outside world? But if are seeking a larger truth (without being grandiose) then real value is created.
The ethics of selling that value to glossy magazines with corpoorate sposors--or even selling it to The Sun, which is not glossy or corporate, but which does serve a particular viewpoint and a set of individuals--are debatable. My only defense is that I need to make a living, and that, for better or for worse, this is my best skill. I'm a mediocre waitress, I can't work in an office, and although I'm a good teacher, I lack the stamina to do it full-time. What I can do is be a conduit and a commentator for these stories which seem to seek me out.
I'm speaking about all this as if it were just an interesting intellectual dilemna, but it hits me where I live, in my most intimate relationships, in the things I am at liberty to write about and those things which I should and do keep private. I'm speaking as if that disctinction were always clear. It is not always clear to me.
My student was reluctant to write about her personal experiences because she feared being self-indulgent, and more than that, she did not want to just create another pleasing product--"Oh, that's a good story! You should send it to The Times!" that could be consumed in our common marketplace. She did not want to objectify herself or her experiences.
But these twin reservations are inhibiting her from writing the piece for the audience who most needs to hear it--herself. And perhaps, someday, others like her, who have gone through similar difficulties, and who would be comforted or illuminated to hear about her experiences.
I was thinking the other night, just as I was falling asleep, that we should do our work, our writing, our whatever, like children building sand castles on the edge of the shore. Knowing they will be washed away, yet completely absorbed in the process, enjoying the sun and the squeals and shouts of our friends, and our own creativity as we line the castle wall with pebbles, or stick a big stick in the center of the turrets where a bird's feather flag may be flown.
The tide comes in; our work is washed away, made irrelevant. Shakespeare stays, impervious to time, and a few others. Most of the rest of us disappear. When I was a teenager, this idea devastated me. Whjy create anything if we only die in the end, and if our creations die too?
Now that I'm older, I am more at peace with it. We go home after an absorbing day of playing all-out, we're in our beds, sunburned, tired, and dreaming. The purpose of the work was to grow ourselves up. Maybe the real work comes afterward, in the dreaming.