Have you no shame?

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Yesterday afternoon one of my daughters dragged inside a potted olive tree from the back yard. We brushed it down to release the spiders and their cobwebs, and then rested the tree on a tray in the living room. This way we can keep watering it during the tree’s enforced imprisonment inside over the next few weeks.

My daughter has since decorated it with a few Christmas baubles, not too many or the tree begins to look ugly, at least in my daughter’s view.

A minimalist olive tree to represent the flavour of Christmas.

Is it a feature of aging that I become more and more jaded each year by the demands of Christmas, the demands to celebrate, the demands to buy, the demands to close up the year with good will, when my emotional bucket is almost full?

I could see the same exhaustion in my mother’s eyes when I was young, whenever Christmas came around, that same sense of ‘how will I ever keep up with the demands?’ And yet my mother relished Christmas more than me, I suspect. She still does.

I must be stressed. The rash has come back, not as vehemently as last time during my holiday in the Grampians in September this year but I can see the raised bumps under the surface of my skin and I am beginning to itch again.

At least this time I have a solution in the form of a quick hit with cortisone and then slowly wean myself off the stuff, but if this rash should come back a third time then I suspect a visit to another doctor might be in order.

The trouble with writing autobiographically, one of the troubles at least, is that it can evoke shame. I start with a thought, but all too soon the inner voices say: Now hold on, wait a bit, what will so and so think about that? How will your daughters read this? And what about those others in your life who might reflect differently on what you write here.

Have you no shame?

I wrote a few words for an online colloquium on psychotherapy recently. ‘I hate to be abandoned,’ the words popped into my head and down onto the page. I qualified them with more thoughtful and erudite comments about the nature of our universal fears of abandonment from infancy onwards and then sent them off.

All night long I cursed myself. I tossed and turned. I could not sleep for shame, for fear that certain of my colleagues, most of whom I do not know and will never know – it’s an international colloquium, rather like the blogosphere but seemingly with more at stake, professional reputations and the like – for fear of what others might think of this clearly dysfunctional human being.

Even as I believe others feel this way too.

Why do you do it? I asked myself and then answered my question. To stir things up. All those stuffy voices spouting theory.

Why can’t we write as human beings? Why can’t we write life as we experience it? Why must we always cover up our insecurities in abstract words that protect us and others from the rawness of it all?

‘You can’t say that,’ someone will say. ‘You can’t write that.’ Recently I read a review in which Andrew Reimer talked about Joan Didion’s book, Blue Nights , a memoir on the death of her daughter.

I’ve yet to read Didion’s book but it’s next on my agenda. I look forward to it, especially after reading her gut wrenching The Year of Magical Thinking.

I want my gut to be wrenched apart by such honest and breathtaking writing, but Reimer reckons that such writing should not happen. He has ethical misgivings. ‘The thought of her buffing and polishing these self-conscious works of literary art for public consumption, for us the readers or perhaps voyeurs, troubles me,’ Reimer writes.

I do not share the man’s reasoning. Why ever not write about our grief?
Or does it make him feel ashamed on Didion’s behalf. The way our children might feel when we embarrass them in public or vice versa, when they embarrass us.

At the same time I suspect the tension inside between the wish to write and the fear that our imagined audience will disapprove might facilitate the writing. It’s rather like the way in which our optimal anxiety before giving a talk enables us to present our talk in a lively and engaging way.

Oh, but it makes me feel sick in my stomach every time I worry about my imagined audience when the fog of shame descends.

All I want to do is to run away and hide, and a Christmas olive tree is too spindly and light of leaves to offer much by way of camouflage.

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75 Comments on Have you no shame?

  1. Theanne and Baron
    December 10, 2011 at 12:16 am (6 years ago)

    Finally had time to come back and read some of your more recent posts! Have you written a book or are you writing a book? Perhaps considering it?

    Reply
  2. sarah toa
    December 10, 2011 at 12:55 am (6 years ago)

    Totally. It's a conundrum, to prostrate oneself or not? I think I'm with you. I'd just die writing academic articles for science journals and not 'shake things up'.

    Exposing yourself can make beautiful art. It usually extracts its price, but for me it's also a raised middle finger to the establishment, a kicking against the pricks. That's one way to circumvent shame but it still visits occasionally.

    Reply
  3. Jane Lancaster
    December 10, 2011 at 1:11 am (6 years ago)

    I would love to see a photo of you trying to hide behind that olive tree in that lovely room! You can probably guess that would be my choice! Oh always ready for a comedy opportunity that's me. Well I hope to God that the cloak of shame doesn't descend on me this coming Monday as I perform a no holes barred 15 mins of my one woman play! The shame descended last time and had me cowering behind my 'olive tree'. And let's pray that an Andrew Weiner, I mean Reimer isn't sitting in the audience! 🙂

    timely post for me E, thanks for showing me I'm not alone xo

    Reply
  4. Ms. Moon
    December 10, 2011 at 1:14 am (6 years ago)

    Oh sweets. I think that growing up in the house you grew up in gave you a hugely disproportionate fear of what others might think if "they only knew."
    Speak your truth. What? They'll revoke your Human License? I don't think so.
    As to the Christmas thing- I'm done. Not doing it. So happy.
    I think your olive tree sounds perfect.

    Reply
  5. Snowbrush
    December 10, 2011 at 1:37 am (6 years ago)

    "Is it a feature of aging that I become more and more jaded each year…"

    Maybe this can be cured by adopting a homeopathic jewelry regimen consisting entirely of wearing large quantities of gaudy and ornate jade jewelry.

    "I do not share the man’s reasoning."

    A great old word, omphaloskepsis, comes to mind here. It means navel-gazing (one's own navel being the navel gazed at). I think self-revelatory writing is only bad when its narcissistic, tedious, limited to one emotion (generally anger or self-pity), or unnecessarily unkind. But when it's deep, broad, touches a chord, reflects ethically or philosophically, or truly cleanses the writer, then it's wonderful. You and I try to make our writing wonderful, and I think (if I may be ever so immodest) that we sometimes succeed. You are a gifted writer, Elizabeth.

    I have a question for you: how do you feel about seeking publication beyond your blog, and why you either do or don't do so.

    Reply
  6. Snowbrush
    December 10, 2011 at 1:49 am (6 years ago)

    Another question about divulgent writing is what do you do if you decide to really lay yourself out there–on your blog, let's say–and your followers start jumping ship? I've run into that to some extent since I've been writing about narcotics and marijuana. My readers seem to survive my frequent attacks on religion–especially Christianity–just fine for the most part, and when I trash my own country–which is the country that most of them live in–they stay with me for that too. But when I started writing about drugs, I rather felt that some of them decided that my blog–and myself–had become worthless.

    Reply
  7. Birdie
    December 10, 2011 at 2:14 am (6 years ago)

    I encourage you to write what you feel. You will be surprised at the love and support.

    Reply
  8. persiflage
    December 10, 2011 at 2:43 am (6 years ago)

    I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and admired it very much, and when I came across Blue Nights, I read it – but after having read Andrew Riemer's review. While I found much to admire, I too felt uneasy about it. It did seem more artificial, more of a construct than did the earlier book.

    I cannot tell whether this is a mere reflection of my own situation in dealing with bereavement, its aftermath, and the numerous issues and problems flowing from these things, or whether it is a more detached and objective response or reaction. I do not necessarily share Riemer doubts as to whether such things should be written about. I have read a few books dealing with grief, and have written about it, but all the time I wonder to what extent I am wallowing in my sorrow, and wondering to what extent I am (perhaps beginning to) find a self-indulgence in some of these books. And whether I am becoming a perpetual whinger. This may well be so, but so far I cannot free myself from these feelings.

    It is all too easy to conclude that no one understands how bad it is, or can give as much sympathy and attention as I feel I need.

    There is little that is rational in this process.

    Perhaps this is an inevitable part of aloneness.

    Reply
  9. erin
    December 10, 2011 at 3:34 am (6 years ago)

    elisabeth, deep breaths.

    i keep asking myself, what is important, in terms of the holidays, my family, myself, writing. what is important? why do you/i do any of it? just keep asking yourself the questions and then allow yourself to live inside of the answers, the real answers, your real answers.

    sure. sounds easy, eh?

    be kind to yourself. be true to yourself. there is no way you can satisfy your colleagues. not on the best of days.

    xo
    erin

    Reply
  10. Windsmoke.
    December 10, 2011 at 4:20 am (6 years ago)

    Write the way you want to because there's no way you can please everybody on this planet, worrying about it is just a waste of valuable time which could spent doing other things you enjoy :-).

    Reply
  11. Marja
    December 10, 2011 at 6:51 am (6 years ago)

    I am proud of you that you have the courage to say things what others are just been able to think. I wish I was able to do that. having LD and 2 kids with LD the memories are still raw of loosing acceptance from many. It is therefore enlightening to see that it is possible to just speak your mind and elegantly you do.
    Love the tree btw

    Reply
  12. Elizabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 7:38 am (6 years ago)

    I recently heard Joan Didion speak and read from her work. I was most struck by her strong statements on writing for an audience. She said that she writes FOR an audience and that she couldn't imagine otherwise. I'm always interested in those who would criticize Didion or who, perhaps, struggle with her lack of self-consciousness. I think she has a tremendous reserve that can come across as patrician. I know that when I read her work (and I've read all of it), I am struck by her solitude — she spins these stories and writes as if she is the only one to have experienced these feelings; her emotions are completely naked but I never get the sense that she knows that others feel the same way.

    Reply
  13. Frances
    December 10, 2011 at 8:03 am (6 years ago)

    Elisabeth: I'm with Andrew Riemer: it's an abuse of kinship. To expose a child's death to fascinated onlookers seems repellant and venal: or, at least tasteless.

    Your grief belongs to you, and you are free to express it in any way that you choose.
    But, my death belongs to me, and Didion's daughter's death belongs to her. Write about it if you must, then put it aside, because you don't have my permission to broadcast it to the inquisitive or voyeuristic, to those who want their guts wrenched, or those just in love with your prose. Respect me and my privacy even after my death.

    Remember how your daughter felt about you publishing here a recount of her wedding? And how you then quickly took it down?
    My death, it seems to me, is more private than my wedding.

    I expect that you have read Riemer's autobiogs: "Inside: Outside" seems to me to shine quite a light into your mother's position.
    And yes: that room is beautiful. The beautiful parquetry – wow! I've been getting quotes on that, but – well, I won't be buying it. And, the skirting boards! Luxe! A healthy bit of real estate there, Elisabeth. 1 mill or 2?

    Reply
  14. Isabel Doyle
    December 10, 2011 at 8:37 am (6 years ago)

    Shame and guilt: probably both necessary emotions for civilised humanity but such barbed swords!

    I often wonder about the pseudonym – the ultimate cloak to protect from shame and guilt – at least from those who don't know 'me' well.

    An experiment – do you want to risk a meeting in public or would you prefer to keep the adiabatic wall of Blog-Ether? I will be in Melbourne for Christmas …

    Isabel x

    Reply
  15. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:05 am (6 years ago)

    Theanne and Baron, it's lovely to see you here again. Which one of us bloggers is not thinking about a book? I'm working on one, but it's at one remove from my blog, though it incorporates some of the autobiographical that features here.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  16. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:07 am (6 years ago)

    I'm glad you understand, Sarah Toa,and share this need to shake things up, to unsettle the settled, to question the establishment, alongside enduring the fear and trembling that sometimes comes as a consequence.

    Thanks, Sarah.

    Reply
  17. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:10 am (6 years ago)

    Please, Jane, tell me more about your 'one woman play'.

    You are a brave soul indeed to get up before an audience in this way. I'm not sure I could manage. I hide behind the written word mostly and even when I give talks I have my notes well prepared in advance. One of my daughters, make that two of my daughters perform and I stand in awe of their abilities.

    Let's hope Andrew Reimer stays away from both of us.

    Thanks Jane.

    Reply
  18. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:14 am (6 years ago)

    Ah Ms Moon, I could have guessed you'd resist the Christmas thing or turn it on its head in some way.

    Maybe take the family fishing from the pond in the yard and drink martinis and eat the most amazing food all in the company of chooks and dogs and other garden friendly creatures.

    Not much guilt left for you, or shame, not if you can help it .

    Thanks, Ms Moon. You are a great role model for getting on with life.

    Reply
  19. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:21 am (6 years ago)

    I have published beyond my blog, Snow, but there's something about the immediacy and strange honesty of blog writing, something about getting past the censors and straight into the line of fire that blogging allows that causes me sometimes to prefer blogging as a medium of communication.

    I get so much more feedback for my writing through the blogosphere than I ever do for my published works, essays mostly, though it would be lovely to get a book out one day and I may yet succeed in that endeavour.

    As for your suggestions about getting over the jaded effects of age. I wear a good deal of jewelry, but not too gaudy I hope. Not expensive jewelry mind. I could not bear to agonize about the worry of losing anything too precious, nor could I or would I afford it.

    Thanks, Snow.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:28 am (6 years ago)

    As for your question about blogger followers jumping ship once you lay yourself bare, Snow, I have found that to happen from time to time.

    I imagine no matter how much we try to write as honestly and as best we can we will still manage to offend someone or other. Still it hurts.

    I stand in awe of your preparedness to challenge certain religious conventions, Snow, but maybe the idea of getting the benefit of illicit drugs is too much for some people, even if it is in aid of physical pain relief.

    I try to keep an open mind myself and I can cope with many things but not bigotry or wanton nastiness. Though it is so hard in the blogosphere at times to discern whether someone writes tongue in cheek or in total seriousness. It can be hard to know when you offend someone and when not. The written word loses much in translation.

    As so many others write to me, you have to be true to yourself, whatever that means.

    Thanks, Snow.

    Reply
  21. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:31 am (6 years ago)

    I have found a great deal of love and support online Birdie, but it's outside in the so-called 'real'; world that I've run into the odd smattering of trouble.

    Still I shall keep trying to write as I feel, and as you suggest .

    Thanks, Birdie.

    Reply
  22. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:40 am (6 years ago)

    Thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful response here, Persiflage.

    I suppose it's unfair of me to judge Reimer's review before I've read Didion's book, but I just caught a whiff of what I'd call 'countertransference negativity'. Namely the way we tend to read – and judge – from our own vantage point and world view .

    To my mind, it helps to read memoir and autobiography – and that includes blogs – with care because, as you are so aware, the position we are in at the time of our reading can influence our interpretation of the writing in prejudicial ways.

    As you say, your grief can influence how you think about another person's grief as she writes about it.

    And grief is such a personal thing. Some people feel a need to talk about it, while others feel a need to weep in private.

    I think it helps to respect the different ways, but not to side step our own.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:45 am (6 years ago)

    I'm trying to take deep breaths, erin, and sometimes they succeed and register deep within me and I can get on with less effort than before. At other times my feet feel leaden.

    Thanks for your encouragement here.

    i think of your decision to use lower case and I try to imagine myself doing likewise. It seems less effortful, especially online when
    I need to go back and revise all the time, to turn the lower into upper.

    It's so much easier to leave them be, but at school we were taught and lessons like this die hard.

    You, erin, seem to have overcome the rigidity of such lessons and I admire you for it.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  24. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 10:48 am (6 years ago)

    I agree Windsmoke, it's a waste of time trying to please everyone.

    It's just that there are some I'd rather not displease too much, or at least not blatantly, at the same time as there is this perverse part of me that wants to thumb my nose at them.

    Quite a conflict, I'd say. Thanks, Windsmoke.

    Reply
  25. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 11:05 am (6 years ago)

    I had to think twice about your reference to LD, Marja and presume you're referring to so-called 'learning difficulties'. I say so-called because so often difficulties can present in one way when really there's something else going on.

    If you don't conform in some way or another, it's easy for people to give you a label, often unfairly so.

    I'm sorry to hear that you have suffered in this way, Marja.

    Thanks for your kind words here.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 11:07 am (6 years ago)

    For what it's worth, I'll try to get my version of 'my' so-called 'truth' out, Unknowngnome.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth
    December 10, 2011 at 11:15 am (6 years ago)

    Have you read Blue Nights yet, Frances? I'm getting my copy tomorrow and will revisit this post when I get a chance to comment with more understanding behind me. As I said in an earlier comment, it might have been premature of me to judge Reimer's review, but I am wary of writing the way he does. I suppose I'm also wary of the notion of ethics and how they might drive our views.

    I haven't read Reimer's 'autobiogs' but I'll hunt them out.

    As for your comments about the house in the photo, it always amazes me how well a place can look under the camera's gaze. Not a sign of mess anywhere, not a dust mote or dirty wall in view.

    Looks can be deceptive but I'm glad you like what you see.

    Thanks, Frances.

    Reply
  28. Jim Murdoch
    December 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm (6 years ago)

    “Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.” I begin with a definition not for you but for me. The ‘etcetera’ bothers me. Actually the expression, “Have you no shame?” bothers me probably more because I think it is one of those expressions that people hear others use, think they understand and then adopt. The proprieties in general bother me especially because so often they are a fashion thing and I expect ethics and morals to be above all that. But you don’t have to be unethical or immoral to judged to have behaved with impropriety. A “sense of what is proper”—which is what people mean when they use the word ‘shame’—is such an arbitrary thing. I always feel for the Queen when she’s visiting all these different countries with their differing ideas on etiquette.

    I am having no tree this year at all. Carrie is in the States so it’s just me and the bird and since he hurt his wing I’m not sure I’d want him perched awkwardly atop it even if he does look cute-in-a-slightly-embarrassed-way up there. Should I be ashamed because I’m not behaving according to conventional behaviour? Can you imagine anyone walking into my flat, seeing I have to tree and going, “Have you no shame?” It’s preposterous. When Carrie moved in with me Xmas and birthdays became quite a big thing for a while. We had the money to splurge and so we let our hearts dictate what we bought and I spoiled my daughter rotten and her friends and boyfriends too who I know were amazed by the lengths we went to to include them and make them feel a part of the family. Now all of that has dwindled away. Last year we agreed to keep the limit we spent to £50 per person but I’m sure I spent more than that; I don’t tally up. I don’t want to feel … now what is the right word? ashamed? guilty? embarrassed? … when her and her husband arrive and I’ve penny-pinched. And yet, if I’m being honest, if we skipped Xmas completely this year it wouldn’t bother me. Like you I have allowed myself to become jaded. It has become a duty and, as I’m a dutiful person, I will continue to do my duty but duty is all bare bones.

    I’m sorry your rash is back. My brain fog is back. We’re all falling apart. But we soldier on because that’s what we do.

    I, as you know, rarely write about my past lives or even my present one. I feel obliged to offer up more in comments like this and yet I deleted the last sentence of the second paragraph in this comment not because I was ashamed of what I was admitting but because I was casting the potential for shame onto my daughter and I felt that was uncalled for in a public forum even though only a handful of people will likely read this comment bar you.

    I am not sure that I do hate to feel abandoned. It is inevitable that are children grow away from us and it’s easy to incorrectly define what’s happening as abandonment or neglect, to feel sorry for ourselves. I don’t but my response to a lack of contact is to stop expecting contact; that way one is not disappointed. Very soon one stops needing contact. Or imagines one does. Which is much the same. I am being honest here but I see I’m not being clear. This is why I steer clear of such issues because nothing is ever as simple as it ends up being on the page.

    If something is common to all men or even many men then most, if not all, of those men will have questions and although there some things that simply defy description—cycling, swimming, sex—it’s good that there are those who are willing to strip down to their bare souls so that we can have some idea what we ourselves might expect when we go there. We like to know we’re doing things right and it doesn’t matter whether that’s grieving or screwing. I seriously wonder if there’s a man alive who hasn’t asked, “How was it for you?” or something of that ilk. The written word is a godsend in this regard because it provides the right mixture of intimacy and distance, protecting both parties.

    Reply
  29. susan t. landry
    December 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm (6 years ago)

    elisabeth, i have been writing about Didion as well. I thought The Year of Magical Thinking was terrific, moving, lucid, with revelatory insights about loss and death. I found it helpful in framing losses in my own life. I am a long-time fan of Didion's; her turn of phrase, her visual language has given us some of the finest reportage for decades. I just finished Blue Nights.
    Although I found it thought-provoking, it is not her best writing. That's my primary caveat–I feel that she did not give herself enough time before writing it; i think the woman is in pieces. I totally disagree with Reimer, tho; it's not about the subject or the content. I look forward to your thoughts when you've read it. thanks, as always, for your probing interest in autobiography.
    –susan

    Reply
  30. Kath Lockett
    December 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm (6 years ago)

    The 'fog of shame' sounds just as destructive as 'guilt'. I love gutty, honest and heart-wrenching writing – even if I've never been through the experience that the writer or character has, I've lost count of how many times a new perspective has been revealed to me and how it can also make me feel that yes, other people suffer, have weird ideas, bad thoughts, queries about the world.

    Shame can go bugger off to the same place that Guilt should be sent to.

    Reply
  31. aguja
    December 10, 2011 at 3:39 pm (6 years ago)

    But there is no shame.

    Think on this: why should any person tell another what they may or may not write. Everyone has a choice – to read or not to read.

    To my mind, it is refreshing to hear people speaking out in their own words and sharing their joy, their grief, their angst.

    And as to the festivities. There is so much to be had from simplicity; the simple forms of life. Your daughters will realise this as they look upon the olive tree; a beautiful idea.

    One of my daughters said to me recently, "It's more fun to be poor than rich'; becuase there is more of a challenge to make of life what you can, is what she implied.

    Continue as yourself … and we shall keep on reading.

    Reply
  32. David-Glen Smith
    December 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm (6 years ago)

    Interesting you built a bridge from the olive tree experience to memoir writing. The process of nurturing the plant, echos the treatment of the self: watering, replanting when necessary, examination for illness, cleaning and medication—

    Yes, this is what writing is about. Understanding what makes us human. I believe Reimer dislikes the notion of continual processing of the same emotion for the sake of profit and celebrity. Similar discussions were in the UK's Guardian Books blog.

    When I write a poem regarding a death or someone's trauma, the inner critic in my head keeps asking: "Are you using the experience for artistic endeavors, or are you simply taking advantage of someone's pain?"

    I have to keep reminding myself that it comes down to this fact: you, the writer, dictate control over your own work. No one else.

    Reply
  33. Kass
    December 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm (6 years ago)

    I could have written this post. Those are that thoughts that run in an endless loop in my head. I must be addicted to shame because I keep doing things and saying things and performing things that make me burn and cringe inside.

    At some point in our lives, we have to decide which voices we're living for. What kind of old women do we want to be? The kind that live with regret for not being who they really are or could have been? What's the worst our critics can do to us? I guess that's where the abandonment issues come in. But isn't it better to be abandoned by people who don't 'get' us than continue an inauthentic life?

    Love your tree.

    Reply
  34. Laoch of Chicago
    December 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm (6 years ago)

    I read the Didion book and found it to be relentlessly depressing bur reasonably well written.

    Reply
  35. ellen abbott
    December 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm (6 years ago)

    If you write honestly there is no shame in that. If others do not like it, it is their shame and embarrassment they are reacting to, not yours.

    Reply
  36. Rubye Jack
    December 10, 2011 at 7:31 pm (6 years ago)

    As usual Elizabeth you have given me much to think about and this is a good thing. I came to this post last night and realized I don't know what I think on the idea of revealing too much to an audience. I immediately felt it is good to stir up the settled and that it is fine to admit to the feeling of abandonment as I think all of us have dealt with such a feeling and those in psychotherapy might be of more benefit if they were willing to talk outside of theory occasionally.

    A part of me appreciates so much when a person shares their grief and sorrow and fears, but only to an extent. I also agree with Reimer in that if a person tells too much they jeopardize the memory of their loved one by making it something of a side show. I really have yet to decide how far one can go with revealing self and remain ethical. As with most things, I think it depends.

    Reply
  37. Kirk
    December 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm (6 years ago)

    When I was 9 or 10, I found out there was no Santa Claus. Christmas has been downhill ever since.

    In no way could you call my blog confessional, yet I've found I have to worry about my family's reaction nonetheless. Even when I write trivial, jokey stuff, and I write a LOT of trivial, jokey stuff, my family seems to read too much into it. God know how they'd react if I wrote something of substance!

    I saw Joan Didion being interviewed on Charlie Rose not too long ago, and she seemed like a nice, unassuming woman. Yet when I read a review of her book in a local paper a short time later, the reviewer complained there was too LITTLE about grief, and too much name-dropping, and too much about the expensive restaurants Didion eats at regularly. Not sure what to make of that. I've experienced so much grief of my own in recent years, I may actually PREFER to read about celebrities I'll never meet, and restaurants I can't afford to eat at.

    Reply
  38. little hat
    December 11, 2011 at 1:45 am (6 years ago)

    The age old conundrum of the memoir writer. Fiction writers are just better at disguising their sources. I am moved by accounts which have a truth, a location and a basis in real world experience – that can be fiction or non fiction.
    Each of us, I am thinking, must make our own judgement as to who benefits and who is wounded or hurt by our writing. Everyone has a line. It's not simple but it is a special challenge for the memoir writer. Everything I write is about someone! I leave out material which I judge will harm. Harm my relationship with someone I love or with someone whose support I rely on. Honesty and prudence. Two sides of the same coin.

    Reply
  39. Anthony Duce
    December 11, 2011 at 4:44 am (6 years ago)

    I haven’t been much for the holidays in a long time. It only made sense when I was a kid, and later when the kids were mine. I continue to be intrigued by your writing and the subjects you cover through observations of your own life. You give so much. There should be no shame. The shame is in how few of us will do the same.

    Reply
  40. Red Nomad OZ
    December 11, 2011 at 9:44 am (6 years ago)

    There's a fine line between outpouring of emotion and self-indulgence – perhaps it's that to which Reimer alludes?

    I once read that great writers are able to say 'f*(k mother'** when concerns about parental offence arise!! Not sure whether I agree with this – but it certainly gives me pause every so often …

    ** No offence intended

    Reply
  41. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 9:55 am (6 years ago)

    I'm curious about the sentence in the second paragraph which you tell me you deleted, Jim.

    It's funny: I am almost as curious about what you left out, minimal as it is as I am about all the other fascinating things you say here in your generous comment.

    As for shame, I'm with a chap/psychoanalyst named Phil Mollon who describes shame as 'a breach in the bond of empathy', by which I think he means, we feel ashamed when an experience we have or are involved in, some aspect of our behaviour or another person's behaviour towards us can lead to a loss of empathic connection between us and the other person or other significant persons in our lives, most often beginning with our parents.

    Shame is something I expect we learn , or at least it's reinforced through our experiences, but maybe the propensity for it is innate, or so folks like Charles Darwin and others who follow would argue. It certainly feels innate, instinctual, hard wired in my psyche.

    Its funny that we can still feel ashamed eve in the absence of others, but maybe it reduces with age. It certainly has for me, despite what I might write at times .

    I'm less ashamed than I used to be. And these days I often chant the first lines from Jenny Joseph's poem to myself. You've most likely read the poem. It follows:

    When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
    with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
    And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
    and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.
    I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
    and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
    and run my stick along the public railings
    and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
    I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
    and pick the flowers in other people's gardens
    and learn to spit.

    You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
    and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
    or only bread and pickles for a week
    and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
    But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
    and pay our rent and not swear in the street
    and set a good example for the children.
    We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
    But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
    So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
    When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

    As for christmas alone, I'm not sure I'd enjoy it, despite my grizzles about the demands of company.

    But I can understand from what you write here that you might find it okay.

    Thanks, Jim

    Reply
  42. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 9:58 am (6 years ago)

    I have my copy a Didion's book now Susan and I shall let you know how I find it when I get the opportunity.

    I know what you mean by writing that can feel raw and unprocessed because not enough time has passed between the event and the experience but somehow I can't imagine this of Didion's writing.

    More later once I've read her book.

    Thanks, Susan.

    Reply
  43. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 10:02 am (6 years ago)

    You have san amazing ability to write into shame and guilt, Kath, and to send it all flying, which is part of the joy of your writing, its polish and non-pretentiousness.

    Your sense of humour helps, too. You can't feel too ashamed while you're laughing and have everyone else in stitches, too.

    Thanks, Kath.

    Reply
  44. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 10:43 am (6 years ago)

    I've been sitting on this one, Isabel. I'd love to meet you in person, though the thought is a little unsettling. Not quite the online thing. It almost has the quality of a blind date.

    Please let me know when and where you'll be during your visit to Melbourne and we shall see how it all pans out? You can email me via the 6thinline email address on my blog.

    Thanks, Isabel.

    Reply
  45. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 10:51 am (6 years ago)

    I think your daughter is right in some ways, Aguja: it can be more fun to be poor rather than rich, but I stress the word 'can'. I also reckon it depends on the degree of the so called poverty or wealth.

    One of my brothers who is wealthy in the scheme of things reckons he could go back to being poor as we were when we were kids without too much trouble. The problem is that he would not want to inflict that degree of hardship on his children.

    That's my view, too. I like to think I could manage a greater degree of poverty for myself but not for my children or my grand children, and maybe not in my old age when I would be restricted in access to health care through poverty.

    I don't really think being poor is that much fun, but I may be too literal here.

    Thanks, Aguja.

    Reply
  46. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 10:59 am (6 years ago)

    I'm inclined to agree with you, David Glen. If the writing is gratuitous, for the sake of greed or exploitation then I question its value, but mostly I think people write out of less base motives, even if they are fired up by the desire for revenge.

    Mostly people write out of desire/need to communicate, or to make sense of their experience or to share some sense of that experience with others and all the variations and mixes of these motives in between. And along with this comes the desire to create something beautiful, a piece of art that goes beyond the reality of the lives that might be touched upon, whether the writer's life or that of those involved with the writer.

    But not everyone sees it like this.

    At the same time readers are not stupid, they can detect a lack of authenticity, and also, as others have noted here, no one is compelled to read writing they do not want to read.

    Thanks, David-Glen.

    Reply
  47. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:02 am (6 years ago)

    I'm not surprised you think like this, Kass, and that you share my thoughts about many of these matters. It's evident from your blog.

    And like you I'm quick to reassure others about the need to write authentically and not to be silenced by those clamouring voices from within, but it's easier said than done, as you of all people would know.

    Thanks, Kass.

    Reply
  48. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:05 am (6 years ago)

    It might seem odd, Laoch but depressing books, books that distress me or make me cry, appeal to me when they are well written.

    I look to be moved by what I read, in whatever shape that movement takes, whether through laughter or tears or anger or sorrow, or sometimes even horror.

    Thanks, Laoch

    Reply
  49. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:07 am (6 years ago)

    It appears that others can pass on their shame, Ellen, when they read writing that they believe should shame the writer, as you suggest. It's a funny process, but I've seen it often enough.

    Thanks for your reassurance here.

    Reply
  50. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:19 am (6 years ago)

    I agree, Rubye Jack, all these things are relative. But, not having read Didion's book yet, I suspect she may be trying through her writing to make sense of her grief and her experience.

    Didion's daughter is dead and as far as I can see, she cannot suffer from her mother's writing. I imagine that Didion's memory of her daughter belongs to Didion and not her daughter.

    How others might remember Didion's daughter, those who knew her, is something for them to build upon, but as we all know, memory is not set in stone, it shifts and sways. It's such a fickle beast.

    To my mind, we must honour the dead in physical terms but what we do with our own memories of them especially as writers is as varied as there are writers and dead people to be be written about. If we do not write about the dead though we will not have an history.

    My suspicion is that Didion's book is not so much about her daughter as a person as it is about Didion's remembered relationship with her, and to me that'd worth reading about. Mothers have such struggles with their daughters and their sons.

    If one mother is able to write honestly and powerfully about that experience about the loss of her daughter, and one who was adopted I believe, then I think it is a useful contribution to literature, but I'll let you know more about what I think one I've read the book. For now it's too soon to judge.

    Thanks, Rubye Jack.

    Reply
  51. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:25 am (6 years ago)

    Our family members tend to be the worst judges of our writing, Kirk. I suspect this is because they see us or themselves in the writing and cannot think beyond themselves and their experience into it.

    The interview you describe with Didion suggests again there's that strange confusion between the personality of the writer and her writing. It's inevitable I suspect especially with non-fiction but it can muddy the waters. It's almost as if we all need to be dead – writers and contemporary readers – to be able to judge impartially the quality of the writing and on top of that fashions and writing styles change over time.

    Thanks, Kirk.

    Reply
  52. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:30 am (6 years ago)

    The two sides of the coin, Little Hat: the need to write honesty about ourselves and our lives alongside the need to protect those we love from the harm of inappropriate disclosure. It's so difficult. As well, there are so many ways of relating to our lives: some folks are private and others more open.

    When a writer violates another's wish to remain hidden, it can create much pain. But to me that doesn't mean the writer has written in bad faith. It is, as you say, the writer's dilemma and more problematic often times for the memoirist.

    Thanks, Little Hat.

    Reply
  53. Elisabeth
    December 11, 2011 at 11:33 am (6 years ago)

    Maybe as we grow older the need for holidays reduces, Anthony. For me at least, though I need down time. Maybe a we grow older our creative needs – your painting, my writing – become one way of relaxing. I'd rather write than go on holidays.

    Thanks, Anthony.

    Reply
  54. Eryl
    December 11, 2011 at 11:15 pm (6 years ago)

    I want my gut wrenched too, but more than that I want to understand. I want to know what it's going to feel like if/when someone I love deeply dies. And that's why I think Didion published. She wrote to understand her own feelings and what she was going through, and published to share that understanding with others, help them. At least I hope so. She doesn't seem like the sort of cynical woman who writes about such things to make a buck. And I'm pretty sure most people don't read such books for some sick voyeuristic thrill, they read to learn.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that my comment is more of a response to other comments here rather than your actual post, so apologies.

    Reply
  55. Arlee Bird
    December 12, 2011 at 6:34 am (6 years ago)

    I am not into Christmas at all this year. It's been an increasing trend as I grow older and now with no employment the holiday is more like my time of shame because I feel like I have nothing to give. Family is scattered and the logistics of seeing part of them is complicated.

    I haven't read the Didion book. I try to read stories that are uplifting and that may fill me with something positive. I'm not accustomed to negativity in my life and only recently have I been feeling it more. Someday I want to write a memoir, but I hope it can teach and uplift.

    Hoping for great things in 2012.

    Lee
    Linda Hoye talks about adoption and writing memoir at
    Wrote By Rote

    Reply
  56. Elisabeth
    December 12, 2011 at 7:46 am (6 years ago)

    One of my writing friends, Eryl, who has just finished reading Didion's book, Blue Nights interprets it in much the way you describe as Didion's attempt to deal with her grief.

    I told my friend of my suspicion that the book is far more about Didion the person, than about her daughter. My friend agreed. It's more about Didion's experience as a mother and her grief at losing her daughter and her sense of herself as failing at being a good enough mother.

    Thanks, Eryl. I'm glad you elected to tackle some of the misgivings of those who might doubt Didion's motives.

    Reply
  57. Elisabeth
    December 12, 2011 at 7:49 am (6 years ago)

    I hope you also enjoy great things in 2012, Lee of Arlee Bird.

    I can understand your wish to read books that lift your spirits but I'm all for a bit of grief at times. After all grief hits us all from time to time in one way or another and for me it helps to read about how others deal with their load.

    Thanks, Lee.

    Reply
  58. Elisabeth
    December 12, 2011 at 7:56 am (6 years ago)

    It's rare that self indulgent writing finds its way into publication in mainstream presses, RedOz, but not all writing appeals to everyone in the same way.

    I just finished reading the prologue to Blue Nights, and it is beautiful writing – not one bit self indulgent – as I suspect it will continue to be, only I think it will unsettle many people, because the content is very painful. But that's in the nature of good writing, it unsettles.

    Thanks, RedOZ.

    Reply
  59. Christine
    December 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm (6 years ago)

    A quick note.. I struggle with the ethics of biography, too and have deleted one or two blog posts as a result. And yet this is the reality of my experiencing with it's own legitimacy even as it reflects the worlds of others.If ever my thesis becomes a book btw, it will have the same tensions. It is a biography of many people. ( The London course was worthwhile BTW. Pragmatic, very sound and well argued in the light of economic realities. It would be good to learn more about it in OZ).

    Reply
  60. Jill from Killeny Glen
    December 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm (6 years ago)

    This line Elisabeth: "Why must we always cover up our insecurities in abstract words that protect us and others from the rawness of it all?" Will ring in my head for days as I do not know that we are capable of fully exposing our TRUE selves…yes some will attempt it, but with the veil of anonymity that comes with internet it is too easy to mask oneself in superfluity.

    Reply
  61. Snowbrush
    December 12, 2011 at 6:54 pm (6 years ago)

    "maybe the idea of getting the benefit of illicit drugs is too much for some people, even if it is in aid of physical pain relief."

    Marijuana is legal in my state of Oregon but illegal under federal law, but even here in Oregon, it's viewed by many people as less savory than, for example, narcotics. However, more than 10,000 people a year die accidentally in America from narcotics, and zero die from marijuana. As for its use for physical pain relief, I would say the same for it that I would for narcotics: it doesn't stop the pain. It might help to a limited extent, and it certainly enables me to sleep a little better, but its greatest benefit is that of a mood-altering substance. Chronic pain can suck a person down like a whirlpool, and marijuana serves the same purpose as legal psychoactive drugs in that it helps the sufferer to maintain a desire to live. Yet, I've seen the responses to my posts drop by half since I started writing about drugs. Since, in America, atheists are held in the same low esteem as rapists, and I almost never lost a reader over my atheism, I shudder to think how people must view me for using marijuana. I view them as being like people who are quite certain that would never, for example, resort to cannibalizing dead bodies to survive despite the fact that they've never gone more than 12 hours without eating.

    I too have written commercially, and I came to hate it with a passion because when you write for someone else, they dictate what you write as well as how you write, and I never got enough money from them to make their demands palatable. The downside of blogging is that a blog almost certainly won't outlast the blogger by more than a few years, and it probably won't be read much during that time, which means that for those who have a gift for writing, blogging does not represent the fullest use of a writer's ability.

    Reply
  62. Zuzana
    December 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm (6 years ago)

    Dear Elisabeth, I guess honesty comes with a price. To say what we mean and think can of course come across as too candid, blatant and offensive and our actions might receive reactions – but I guess that is everyone's prerogative – both the writer's and the reader's. Still, I rather take that risk, than keep on writing something unsubstantial, censured and meek. As long as we stay true to ourselves and our beliefs, we will never regret that which we put into a written word.;)
    On another note, what does it feel like to be celebrating Christmas in the summer? I have always wanted to know. How unfair it must seem to the countries in the Southern hemisphere that Christmas generally equals snow and cold.;)
    xoxo

    Reply
  63. Rachel Fenton
    December 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm (6 years ago)

    Is your rash symptomatic of feelings of shame?

    I think shame is a female disability. It should be cured by now.

    Reply
  64. Elisabeth
    December 14, 2011 at 7:03 am (6 years ago)

    Ah the dreaded word, ethics, christine. It crops up again and again in relation to all our most heartfelt endeavours. I reckon one person's ethical dilemma is another's ethical certainty.

    I'm glad your course went well and I certainly would enjoy reading your book when it comes out, for all its ethical peccadillos.

    Thanks, Christine.

    Reply
  65. Elisabeth
    December 14, 2011 at 8:41 am (6 years ago)

    You're right, Jill, it is all too easy to disguise ourselves in what you call superfluities on the Internet and yet, it's also possible to get below the surface to some honest appraisals of our lives and our experience. It's the authenticity I look for, Jill, more so that absolute truths and facts.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  66. Elisabeth
    December 14, 2011 at 8:47 am (6 years ago)

    People can be so blinded by their prejudices, Snow, and your story about the use of marijuana for pain relief is a case in point. I'm sorry that some people have abandoned you for your efforts to get pain relief. Marijuana does not get good press, anymore than atheism, but maybe there's the fantasy that one can fight against atheism. If you wrote in support of women' right to choose as regards abortion, or even on the whole issue of evolution you might get a even more disappearing response.

    Politics and prejudice win, despite the fact that some of us are more interested in the actual story and the quality of the writing that emerges in telling the story.

    Thanks, Snow.

    Reply
  67. Elisabeth
    December 14, 2011 at 9:47 am (6 years ago)

    I've never known anything else, Zuzana, other than a hot time- temperature-wise – over Christmas, though it need not be extreme. Certainly we never see snow or sleet or intense cold, usually temperatures in their mid to high twenties, centigrade that is.

    I enjoy the event. We combine traditional foods such as turkey and cornbread with more Australian fare, such as summer pudding: a bread pudding filled with raspberries and blackberries, logan berries etc, and served with cream, but we also have a plum pudding, only once a year.

    I also agree with you, Zuzana, about the importance of writing in ways that are true to ourselves.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  68. Elisabeth
    December 14, 2011 at 9:50 am (6 years ago)

    As you say Rachel, women seem to have a monopoly on shame but I think they're not the only ones.

    I've met the occasional man who has suffered from overdoses of shame. I suspect it's a universal human emotion and one that can't be 'cured', but it can be met with compassion, recognised and understood.

    Thanks, Rachel.

    Reply
  69. Mary LA
    December 15, 2011 at 8:44 am (6 years ago)

    So Reimer thinks Didion should have stayed 'mute'? His assumptions trouble me far more than Didion's book which I found vulnerable and moving, even though I've always been ambivalent about Didion.

    Reticence, not-saying anything or leaving things unsaid is so often admired whereas the confessional impulse is associated with blurting or unseemliness, as if there is some kind of indecency there, the dirty laundry exposed, unbuttoned, the rawness (your word), bystanders embarrassed, the shame like contagion. I feel as if blogging has helped me unlearn my 'good manners' and that myth of impersonality in writing. Why not just say what happened?

    Something similar I noted when Joyce Carol Oates wrote about being widowed, a diary of grief and sorrow, but all critics could do was to deplore the fact that she remarried so soon as if she had no right to be happy or talk about grief now that she had become happy. the same moralizing imperatives that govern women in churches and public life, that insist the pretences are kept up.

    What Muriel Rukeseyer said:

    What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
    The world would split open.

    Reply
  70. Mary LA
    December 15, 2011 at 8:51 am (6 years ago)

    Forgive a second comment, but just quickly. Autobiography is always about telling family secrets, isn't it? This from Jeanette Winterson:

    "[U]nhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself."

    Reply
  71. Elisabeth
    December 15, 2011 at 9:38 am (6 years ago)

    My point exactly, Mary, all this furtiveness about speaking about our experience as if it were taboo.

    Having gown up in a family loaded down secrets, as you suggest, or at least your wonderful quote from Winterson affirms, all families harbor secrets and the ones who speak out are often ostracized.

    I sometimes wonder whether readers might feel envious of certain writers' capacities to express themselves so eloquently about really painful or difficult matters.

    As a consequence they, the readers -and worse still sometimes, the reviewers – cannot bear to laud the writers' efforts. Instead, as in the case of Joyce Carol Oates, they look for ways to bring them down that go beyond the writing to attack the writers at a personal level as people.

    Thanks for your wonderfully rich and thoughtful comments, Mary. I appreciate them very much.

    Reply
  72. Frances
    December 16, 2011 at 7:30 am (6 years ago)

    I'm not speaking of ethics in turning aside from Didion, Elisabeth, but of kindness, consideration, respect, affection, or, as in this case, the lack of.

    '"Writers are always selling somebody out," Didion wrote …a statement of mercenary purpose in the guise of confession" '
    Quite. Precisely what she has done here to her "own" daughter..(Would another dimension of the heart have been opened to her if she had given birth rather than adopting?)
    'She admits that her writing might lack empathy … "I'm not very interested in people," she says. "I recognise it in myself – there is a basic indifference towards people." '
    That is what she demonstrates towards her daughter by cannibalising her death to enhance her own reputation and purse, and it is that cold indifference that I find mechanistic,repellant but well rewarded by our present sensation-driven culture.
    Not something that I subscribe to.
    As for "truth" – we all know that that doesn't exist.

    Reply
  73. Peter Greene
    January 27, 2012 at 11:24 pm (6 years ago)

    Enjoying the reading here so far! Thanks for all the thought and memory here…a good thing, to decorate the internet up in this way.

    Reply
  74. Elisabeth
    January 28, 2012 at 6:52 am (6 years ago)

    Was it the notion of shame that drew you here, Peter? I wonder. Thanks for letting me know you were here. I'm glad you enjoy the reading so far.

    Reply

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