Life is Not a Spectacle–In Which I Question the Ethics of Writing This

Dear Lily June,

It occurs to me not infrequently the problems of my writing so very candidly about my family.

The issue was thrown into sharp relief for me just the other day, when I contacted a blogger I admire by email to let her know that I’d purchased her book and was looking forward to reading it. In sharing some of my own published poetry with her, I realized I went by one pseudonym for professional publication, as well as going by another persona, “Alyssa Moore” here on my personal blog, which means, essentially, I’m as buried under piles of names as our small Midwestern town is now buried under snowflakes. Strip away the layers of protective coats, and someone’s bound to get cold. The question is, would I be the one doing the shivering?

***

Part of the bond your dad and I shared early on was over our staunch beliefs about poetic ethics. While some of our classmates in graduate school seemed to feel that access to a keyboard and the internet meant they had carte blanche to write whatever they wanted about whomever they wanted, we would privately bristle and seethe to one another about the dangers of exploitation and appropriation.

I took particular issue with poets and writers who attempted to write narratives, or in the voices, of those lifestyles which they’d never experienced: the white middle-class male from the North writing about the poor black male’s experience with lynching in the South; the free and educated middle class woman “speaking” in the voice of underprivileged, incarcerated females.

As a white female happily engaged in a heterosexual marriage, for instance, I feel it’s a moral obligation to admit when I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about from personal experience, but merely from theory, and I try to remind myself, however uncomfortable it may be for me to believe and swallow, that layers of privilege always color the lenses through which I perceive a situation.

While the power of imagination is important–and in fiction is essential to the process–poetry and memoir present a unique ethical challenge for their writers, and I often wrestle with the idea that we shouldn’t be able to so easily don personas and their voices like so many clothes tried on, then discarded, in a department store changing room. When writing real stories of real people who actually existed, the problem of ethics intensifies, and when those stories are unpleasant–when they’re about pain and violence and addiction and abuse, for instance–a poet, essayist, memorist or blogger has to be all the more careful.

I return again and again to this passage from Aimé Césaire’s poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939,” a quotation I ironically first encountered as the epigraph to a book I actually did find exploitative of others with mental illness (whose title and author, as I don’t believe in public shaming, will remain nameless):

“Beware of crossing your arms over your chest in the sterile pose of a spectator, because life is not a spectacle, a sea of pain is not a proscenium, and a screaming man is not a dancing bear.”

And Lily, I worry. I worry that it’s not fair to expose the skeletons in my family’s closets when some of those bones still have flesh living around them and could step out of the closet at any time, potentially find this blog despite my altering photos and reassigning names, and recognize the wounds of theirs I may have exposed, be it wounds they own or wounds they caused. It’s not my intention to, in sharing what feels to be my truth (as all experiences are rendered by the subjective spectator), wound them, too.

When it comes to my own family, memoir, and poetry, I struggle with ownership and its boundaries. Is it fair to expose my mother’s childhood, for instance, when I wasn’t even there? Can I present how I was raised by my mother in the fullest, most complete way if I don’t? Is it possible to be balanced when hinting at the darker parts of my father’s raising me by sharing the good, too, even if one tempers the other so either the fear is muffled or the love looks lost? Is it fair to expose my sister, currently still engaged in custody battles against her abusive ex, to further dangers if he should read this and find something I’ve said worthy of using against her?

***

And what, ultimately, will reading my take on these tales and times do to you, my daughter? My first reason for donning a fake name, and giving you one, too, when I took your letters from being a private document I typed on my computer when I was pregnant to being something I shared with the world was to protect your identity. I had visions of middle school kids mocking you someday, saying, “Ha, ha, Lily June. We know all about your personal life. Your mom’s that stupid blogger.”

The truth is, if I stopped publishing these, a large part of the problem goes away. I’m forced to admit that I relate to the lyrics of Ani Difranco’s song “Here for Now” when she sings, there’s

“…a fear that you’re standing here / because you want to be liked. / Yes, you know you need your instrument / but does your instrument need to be mic’d?”

But then, the stories don’t stop having happened because I stop talking about them. The family of my childhood doesn’t become a Rockwell painting; I don’t suddenly know, by sitcom magic, how to sit on the side of your bed and talk you off any ledge. I don’t have the input and support of readers some of whom have become friends even though I don’t, maybe won’t, ever “know” them. I won’t get to read others question their identities, too, in the most eloquent and philosophical of ways. I won’t get to feel so connected to the world, like we’re all just part of the same human family.

So what do I do, Lily? When do I share these letters, both public and private, with you? Do I ever take the masks off, or are they as real, now, as the face underneath that they shelter? The best I can do, because I admit my addiction–I have to write it out of me, if it takes a lifetime–is tell you again as I’ve said before on this blog: All of this is my truth. That doesn’t mean it will be the truth that belongs to you.

There are literal truths, and there are emotional truths, too. Sometimes words, in service of the latter, miss the mark of the former. And all of our infallible truths are built on the backs of highly fallible memories. As the character Leonard Shelby cries out in exasperation in the movie Memento,

“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

Whatever else I say, Lily, this much is now and will always be true: I didn’t write any of this to hurt anyone, least of all you. Everything I’ve written thus far and will continue to write and share, in both my professional poetry and my personal blog, is true. But I’ll never claim any of this, when you get to the heart of it and all involved–my family members who, I hope if they find this know that I love them earnestly, through and through–is fact.

And when you tell your own life stories someday, whether they’re memories you replay quietly in your own head or scenes you pronounce out loud for entire crowds to clap at, be sure you have the guts to stand there and hear your own words, every one of them, from whoever they’re for or whoever they’re about, echo back.

***

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7 thoughts on “Life is Not a Spectacle–In Which I Question the Ethics of Writing This

  1. bitsfromheaven says:

    Oh you are GOOD. This is where I sit and ponder often before writing. Who will this hurt? Is this to benefit only me…. If so and so or such and such will be offended. I truly believe that our truth is what shapes us more than fact, and changes how we are perceived by the world around us. The fact may be what wounds us, builds us, our truths are how we react, recover, fall apart. (In my opinion, of course) Thank you for another great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I think we all, to varying degrees, worry about how much is ours to tell. God help me to raise my daughter in such a way that she’s never afraid to tell any story she needs to about me. And I hope that story has a happy ending!

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Amy says:

    3/4’s of the way through the homeschool day I’m bleary and mushy. Otherwise I’d try and respond as intelligently to this post as it was written (as if!). But I didn’t want to not say anything (I know. Double negative. And there’s a fragment. See?) because it’s great. Just great and thoughtful and spot on. And oh, that Ani. I see (er, hear) her in the evening to come. Thanks for the reminder (on every front). Scripture’s constantly talking about “the tongue” and that bit about making sure that what we say benefits those who listen. Or as I put it to my kids when we’re reviewing how to choose what we say, “are you being a drain or a fountain? Adding to the space or sucking the life out of it?” It’s a helpful image for me and seems to be for them too. Always helps us pause (I know it’s not Franklin Friday, but that counts towards moving towards intentionality, I think. Good for a Tuesday too.) Thanks for this, as ever.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Allie P. says:

    I dance around the whole, it’s not my story to tell conundrum as well. I’ve learned that I’ve offended people when I meant the telling as praise and vice versa. You just never know how others will interpret your words, but I think provided it is more your truth and less your rant, in the long run, sharing helps grow understanding or worst case sets Lily June up for an awesome book deal.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Patricia says:

    Alyssa, this made me cry. I’m as surprised as you are. I try to write the negative in a positive manner as do you. I can’t regret my writings except “What would you do?” which I have since deleted. My truths were a bit much for most people to take, not that anyone said anything. What to write is a personal decision but once again, you seem to be selling yourself short. You have a gift and that gift should benefit you as well as your readers. However, I second guess my writing because it exposes people that readers don’t know, they only know what I write about them. But their actions affected me and hard as it is to say, it is my life. I too love my family, and like you, I always try to explain how they got to be who they are. I have talked to my mother about my writing and its exposure but neither of us would want her to read it. We each have to make our own decisions but I saw a confidence emerging in you when you finally told your truths about your childhood. You say that my writing helps others, so how can you not believe that your writing helps others?

    I know I have been absent. I am working on taxes, yuck. The hotspot solution doesn’t work very well either so we have to go down to the library or their parking lot and I have been too busy to do so. I miss the freedom to get on the internet any time I please. Because I get up at around 5:00 to 5:30 since I moved here, I can get on for a while. My granddaughters send me texts almost every night saying “goodnight”. It is such an awesome feeling. Just thought I would share. Know that I am still here.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Blathering says:

    I write my blog anonymously too, because I’m a naturally private & shy person, but when I started it I foolishly shared it with siblings….and now, because one sibling follows it with great interest, that inhibits me from writing freely about my family, my childhood, my mother’s mental illness, my brother’s episodes of psychosis…because that’s the brother who reads it & I don’t want him to feel unsupported, or to feel guilty or upset about having caused me any distress or worry. Fear of being further inhibited about my content is a minefield that makes me ambivalent when genuinely interested people ask for the blog address. I often avoid giving it to people who ask for it – zero points for self-promotion!

    For your daughter’s sake I think it’s a good idea to keep the persona for your blog. I see no need to question your own motives in wanting to write about your own life on your blog. Being able to tell your own story is empowering and liberating. I’m sure Ani, (along with Martha Wainwright) knows it needs to be miked because it’s not just about the music (or the act of writing, which you could otherwise do in a private journal) it’s about mining your personal history as material for your creative output. If you scribble/strum/paint away in a garrett and no-one ever reads, or hears, or sees your work, what was the point of writing/playing/painting it?

    Liked by 1 person

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