It’s the question that always gets asked. When I’m teaching, or giving a reading, or an interview, at some point, someone will raise her hand: what did your family think of Slow Motion? Or Devotion? How do you write about those you love, those you’ve lost, those who have hurt you? Is anything or anyone off limits? Is there a line you won’t cross?
As many times as I’ve responded to this line of questioning – and as much as I actually enjoy exploring the thorniness of the issue – I feel myself tense as I begin to answer, because there is no answer. I know it, and I feel my interlocutor must know it too. After all, writing is – as Joan Didion inimitably put it – “the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing about other people is, according to Janet Malcolm, “morally indefensible.” When Still Writing came out, Cynthia Ozick, a writer I admire enormously, sent me a note saying some very nice things about the book which also included the following thought: But you are not a monster.
She did not mean this as a compliment. Implicit in her words – and Didion’s, and Malcolm’s, I think – is the idea that it is essential, in the name of art, not to care. A scorched earth philosophy, in opposition to morality. Art trumps ethics. Self-expression takes no prisoners.
I don’t know.
From where I sit in my office, on my chaise, I am surrounded by family photographs: my husband on a rooftop in Mogadishu, cupping his hands around a cigarette. my father and my aunt when they were children; my husband and me on our wedding day; my grandmother elegant in a fur stole; my husband swinging our then four-year-old son in our backyard. They watch over me as I write, and they serve as a reminder that I am part of a family, part of a community. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a mentor. There’s a responsibility in all this – to others, as well as to the art.
But when I sit down to write a first draft — the one in which I discover what I’m trying to say — I look away from these photographs. This is when I grow fangs, and my breath turns fiery. This is when I come closest to being a monster. I write to find out what I know, what I think, what I fear. And I can’t do that if I’m censoring myself. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, because no one else will be reading this draft. This is such an important point for writers to remember. We can always dial it back, revise, rethink, later. In fact, we had better do all these things. But until we let the monster out of her hiding place, we won’t even know her face.
And so, no, when it comes to releasing my work into the world, I am not a monster. I would never willingly, consciously hurt anyone I love. I would, in fact, never willingly, consciously hurt anyone at all. Does this mean no one has ever been hurt? No, no it doesn’t. But I can say that I try. I consider carefully. I weigh every word. To write is to attempt to tell a truth. Not the truth. Not another person’s truth. But a truth. And in order to tell it, first we must find it. All we know, all we have, is our own experience, our own consciousness, memory, and imagination. These are our tools. And so with deliberation and consciousness and care, we wield them.