Friday, February 24, 2017

The zone

A weird way to begin a first-person blog post, I realize, but here goes: I used to be very personal-writing-averse. And when it comes to my own inclinations, I still am. It’s not possible to write honestly about your own life without including private details of others’ lives, and that’s not something I’m comfortable doing. It's also easier for me to write about things I care about personally without delving deep into the psychology of why I came to care about them. And in more let's say political terms, I think an emphasis on a certain kind of personal essay puts a shelf life of sorts on women’s writing. (In just about all professions, women benefit – to a point – from being young and conventionally attractive, but the ‘woman writes about her sex life’ genre requires this more than most.)

But I’ve been persuaded, over the years, through writing by Alana Massey and others, that there’s a feminist case for this genre, and more urgently, a feminist case against opposing it outright. Why is it Art if Jonathan Whichever engages in confessional writing, but not if a woman does the same? Why denigrate a road to writing success that's open to young women? Yes, others ought to be open as well, but closing one door doesn't burst open another and all that.

Still, I tended to think there was a middle-ground answer, which was this: fiction. Write fiction, and you get to have all the feelings without the drawbacks of personal writing. Magic! But as novelist Julie Buntin’s super-compelling essay on the topic conveys, your friends and loved ones will respond to your fiction as fact. And how wouldn’t they? Even if they know that details were changed, even if they’re sophisticated enough in these matters to get that the “fiction” label means no one can rightly think the work is point-by-point about real people, they know, if nothing else, that you wrote the thing. You’re conveying dynamics you’ve observed that they thought went unnoticed. Experiences that you’ve had but haven’t announced, or haven’t announced publicly. Keeping things fictional is a way of avoiding outing your relatives about private matters. But for those who know you, you still may be crossing any number of lines.

Reading Buntin's essay, it became clear to me why, despite years of insisting that fiction was the answer, I'm incapable of making that switch myself.

In a dual book review for the New York Times that comes across as ambivalent, shall we say, about the online personal-essay genre (it's of Massey’s new book, plus Cat Marnell’s), Anne Helen Petersen writes that for a while, she herself published essays along those lines, “min[ing] [her] life for the weirdest, best and most tragic jewels until they were gone.” I guess a way to put it is that I did the opposite, but wound up in precisely the same boat. It’s not overshare that’s gotten in the way of my fiction-writing drive. It’s undershare.

I will now retell a story I think I’ve shared some version of before, but in the context of the Buntin-inspired epiphany. It is not that racy. That’s sort of the point:

I wrote fiction in high school, and just sort of default assumed that was what I’d write, if indeed I wrote anything at all.* Then I got to college, where the newspaper was non-glamorous and therefore welcoming (here’s a column! here's an opinion-editor position!), while the literary magazine almost only published professional, non-student writers, but held meetings to laugh at the student-fueled slush pile.

Due first to that column, What Would Phoebe Do, then to its blog extension of the same name, I fell into this mode of writing in the first person, as myself, but always with an implied audience of all the adult authority figures in my life. Not just implied! The column was read by (some of) my professors. My blog, by my family and old family friends. Not exclusively, in either case, obviously, or I wouldn't be a writer of any kind now. But this was an audience I couldn’t ignore.

What this meant was that long before social media took off, I was taking dead-seriously the advice that you shouldn’t put online anything you wouldn’t want proverbial prospective employers to read. (Also relevant: I came of age just before it was impossible to have an offline private life. Facebook only started having photo albums when I was 21. If I were a few years younger, either I wouldn’t have these hangups, or they’d have extended to my life itself, not just online writing.)

It’s not exactly that what I wrote, or write, is this great performance. There's no Real Me who is in fact Courtney Love. But a voice of sorts emerged, a persona, that was, by omission, several notches more ‘nothing to see here’ than reality. There was – is! – this zone of experience that was off-limits, extending beyond what Petersen refers to as “a woman’s insides — her exploits, her eating habits, her feelings, her sex life.” And whenever I try to write fiction, I find myself reverting to the zone, perfectly well able to write about characters who are not me (or, conversely, that I'm particularly interested in writing characters based on loved ones or my former college professors), but inhibited about putting even fictional creations in contexts that involve leaving the zone.

*I had no illusions that I’d be A Novelist, but I was, if I may say so, strong by 12th grade English class standards. I have no reason to think fiction I'd write would be good, but am wondering what it is that stops me from getting further with it, when clearly holding forth in text is not a problem. Nor, for that matter, is the story-creation part.

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