Honesty is not a sworn statement

My father appeared in my dreams again last night. He sat at his usual place in the lounge room in Camberwell, behind the closed door, the one you entered from the corridor that led away from the kitchen. As usual he was drunk, but the action of the dream is lost to me now.

My mother’s eyes welled up in tears yesterday when I visited her in the hospital. She takes pleasure in talking about her children, her grandchildren and now her great grand children, the ninth of whom is yet to be born, my daughter’s baby in July.

‘And none of you on drugs,’ my mother said, as if this is our greatest achievement.

I have held onto the fantasy that my mother will leave this world around the time her next great grandchild is born. I have seen this often: birth coincides with death. My daughter’s grandfather, my father, died when she was ten days old. The cycle of life.

I am back into a concern about the nature of the written word, the way it can convey a depth of meaning and emotional truth that far outweigh the veracity of the events the words might seek to cover.

Does this make sense to you?

It is part of the autobiographical contract to write as honestly as we can, but honesty is not a sworn statement. It is an attempt to delve into the depths of a writer’s inner world and explore what might be happening there without too much judgment or second-guessing. At least it is so for me.

I have been reading Paul Williams The Fifth Principle, the story of one little boy’s beginnings in a world in which essentially he experiences himself as a no one, invisible. He takes this view on the basis of his mother’s absolute hatred of him.

It is strange to read about the inner workings of a man whose early life is marred by so much hatred. That this man is also a well-known psychoanalyst in Britain adds to the picture, but should it?

Williams qualifies his story in the preface. He writes about a child’s experience and again I suspect he does not want to be held to ransom or account for all he writes.

He writes that the book takes as its subject ‘aspects of the author’s life… [but] it would be misleading to consider the writing as the ‘autobiography or “the case history” of an individual’. And here Williams comes to the crux of that which I, too, struggle to say:

‘The author of the book, and the individual written about, are not the same person… the author has undertaken, on behalf of the subject, to provide a faithful, intelligible rendering of unintelligible events…’

In other words do not take to reading this story as concrete evidence of Williams’s actual, factual and total life. Our inner lives are far more complex.

It is the sorry lot of the autobiographer to have her writing treated as gospel. Readers can become preoccupied with the facts of the events and lose sight of the experience, and of the writing.

Did that really happen to you? What a terrible story. How can you write about it?

The exclamations have an unsettling effect, as if I must write defensively, write a preface like Williams, as if I must justify my words on the page. They might offend.

Years ago in a writing class, the teacher urged us in our work shopping to treat all writing as if it were a piece of fiction, regardless of its content.

Treat it as a fiction, whether it is or not, talk to the person who has written the piece as the writer and not as the central character. Talk to the writer separately from the narrator, that way we can talk about the quality of the writing.

We can talk about what the writer is hoping to communicate perhaps. We can talk about the places to which the writing takes us without getting bogged down in the external factors beyond the writing, as if they are facts that need to be documented for a police record.

Sometimes I feel like a criminal when I post my words onto this blog, as if more often than not I must justify what I have written here, and even more than that I must account for the very fact of posting my writings in this so-called public space, which can feel at times strangely intimate and at other times as if I am shouting out in the middle of a crowded market place and no one can hear.

I am not selling facts. I am offering experience, wrapped in emotion, for the price of thoughtfulness and goodwill.

37 thoughts on “Honesty is not a sworn statement”

  1. "The author of the book, and the individual written about, are not the same person… the author has undertaken, on behalf of the subject, to provide a faithful, intelligible rendering of unintelligible events…"

    The mixing of perspectives does separate the writer from the one written about. It could not be otherwise. Even if they inhabit the same body.

    And you're right; you are not "selling facts." You are "offering experience, wrapped in emotion, for the price of thoughtfulness and goodwill." Again, it could not be otherwise. MacLuhan was right; "The medium is the message." The transferred experiences are what effects your readers, the likes of me.

  2. You are a wonderful writer with lots to say… It can’t and shouldn’t be hidden by cover statements. There is always a high price to be paid for putting yourself into the words.

  3. Oh Elisabeth…your thoughts. You have the ability to be that honest in words, written and thought out loud for us to read! If I could only do as you do…I have this block that I must wait till those I might write of are gone from this earth. I sometimes wonder if I should have an anonymous blog without my name to write what my depth carries. Would it make it better inside? What I feel awful or relieved?

    I appreciated your teacher suggesting that one writes as the writer and not as the central character. If one could lift the personal and write without remorse of writing so honestly…wow! Perhaps my issue/problem/fear is that doing it I would be more fearful for placing on paper what I can't openly say…some parts of our lives carry a weight that seems to be unable to be lifted.

  4. Elisabeth, I believe I am understanding you and your words, what you write and when I comment, I hope that that is conveyed to you. I am a lover of words, of the strange facility that some have to spin emotion and feeling, existence itself — or not — into them. You have that facility, and I don't pretend to "know" you — I think, though, that not everyone is a real "reader" of words — some might attach signifiers to words and become attached to those signifiers, and I think that makes their reading "subjective." Does this make sense? I always find fascinating your conflicts about writing — particularly about the personal. I wonder if you've read the recent article by Lorrie Moore that discusses memoir and fiction? I can't say that I agree with her, but you might find the whole discussion interesting —

  5. I've never read anything criminal in your words at anytime and i certainly don't see why a Blogger would have to justify or account for what they write in a public space. Don't stress out to much about it, it's your blog write what you feel :-).

  6. I'm glad it makes sense to you, Rob Bear. As you say the medium is the message and the message can vary from time depending on the nature of the communication.

    Thanks, Rob Bear.

  7. There's a high price to pay for putting yourself into words, as you say, Anthony.

    Whenever a person puts forward their wordy ideas for public consumption, they stick out their necks.

    And as much as there can be the pleasure of recognition, there's also the pain of criticism.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  8. I do feel this here, maybe more than anywhere, the power and energy of what is lived from within, put into words. I am reimagining my own life, through memories that are getting filled in from within me. Are they true, factual? They are true in the broadest sense, and that is what matters.

  9. I have just written a post which I’ve just sent off to Carrie who’s now in the States to edit so no rest for the wicked. Actually there are two articles and a poem and I really owe all of them to you indirectly. Anyway the one I’m thinking about concerns the difference between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge, the latter being transferrable, the former not. There are those who believe that all knowledge is tacit. I’m not one of them but I do believe that all personal experience is. You can relate the facts in excruciating detail but looking at virus particles under a microscope won’t teach you much about what it’s like the be infected by them. Degrees of pain in particular are some of the hardest things to communicate to another individual although physical pain is probably easier than emotional even if reducing it to a number on a sliding scale is a bit primitive.

    I have to say that I love your line: “It is the sorry lot of the autobiographer to have her writing treated as gospel.” In the article with the poem in it – can’t remember which one it is now – I rewrote the poem as a small piece of biographical prose and it’s all wrong. Just focusing on a single time period, in this case the few years when my dad became dependant on drink, was really hard for me. By this time I’d left home and so most of what went on I got second-hand from my brother and sister but I still struggle to remember. I don’t think we can blame my inability to recollect much of my childhood on trauma, I just think I’ve a weak memory. By ‘weak’ I mean as in lacking musculature. People use that metaphor all the time – memory is a muscle – but having weight trained in my twenties I know that muscles only grow if exercised and memories are only vibrant and easily accessible if dwelt on. I don’t dwell on the past. I don’t reinforce my past by thinking about it, talking about it or writing about it. Carrie talks about things that happened early on as we got to know each other (nice things) and I can’t remember them either. So I can’t go into explicit detail about the past even if I wanted to.

    You offer us experiences, at least you try to. Experience is personal. Someone a few days ago talked about a friend who ran into a flasher and as much as I’d like to understand what her friend went through I simply can’t. If a woman has flashed her boobs at me when I was young I’d have been delighted. Seeing a pair of unclothed breasts was the Holy Grail for many a year. That it’s wrong to expose yourself in public I get but as a young boy I would have thought that girls were as curious about willies as I was about bosoms. I’m being perfectly honest here. The closest experience I could come up with was being propositioned by a prostitute and to be honest again I was flattered that she asked me. I politely declined – I was probably apologetic knowing me (see I can’t remember the details) – but I wasn’t offended. I might have been. I might have said to myself: She must think I look like the kind of guy who sleeps with prostitutes but just the idea of someone offering to have sex with me (albeit for money) pleased me so much that I never considered the negative aspects of the encounter.

    I have no problems with honesty but, like you, I object with people assuming that it is synonym for accuracy. Fiction is safer. But even there there will be those who dig through the text for inconsistencies and bloopers. Since when was the truth all about the facts? You see that in TV law shows all the time: people present factual evidence on the stand and someone the truth gets lost along the way.

  10. "I am not selling facts. I am offering experience, wrapped in emotion, for the price of thoughtfulness and goodwill."
    I could not have said it better myself.

  11. You touch gently, but deeply, on questions that often well up in me when writing on the blog. How much of what we write about our lives is real and how much do we fictionalize or, in some cases, poeticize? And how much does the distinction matter? Given that remembering involves so much forgetting and re-creating, I think that these questions are destined not to find answers bu to chase each other around endlessly.

  12. I would agree that it all depends on what is being communicated. You talked about writing as revenge a while back. The person to whom you're seeking revenge on might object to an exaggerated account of their behavior. Exaggerate too much, that person sues for libel. "Emotional truth" won't stand up in a court of law. A mitigating factor, at least here in the states, is UNCONSIOUS exaggeration. You really believed in what you were saying. Easy to do if the truth is emotional. But it seems to me that if you're going to trash another person in print, it really does behoove you to examine your own propensity to exaggerate.

    Beyond that, I think exaggeration is permissible as long as it's credible. After all, you don't want the reader to say, "Aw, come on now! You don't expect me to believe THAT?!" Of course, they may say that even when its 100% factual, but why give them extra ammunition by exaggerating?

    Telescoping events, making up bits of conversation because you can't remember precisely what was said, even moving a conversation from, say, a family reunion to a walk on the beach with a significant other because during the former your drunken Uncle Lester kept interrupting thereby destroying the mood, well, I think that's OK. Uncle Lester might complain, but that's what he gets for being obnoxious. Being drunk, he probably won't remember, anyway.

  13. I thought long and hard about the nature of my blog and blog identity Ellen. I did not realise I could use a false identity without too much effort, but it seemed to me to defeat the purpose. There would be something hollow for me if I were to write from some pseudonym. So I elected to run the risk of writing from one aspect of myself, my writer self, and of course it's not easy. But to write under a pseudonym would also be difficult.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  14. I haven't read the Lorrie Moore article to which you refer, Elizabeth and I'd love to . Could you please post me the link, if you have it, otherwise I'll google away.

    It's a topic that's dear to my heart and I rehash thoughts about it regularly.

    We skate on such thin ice when we write so-called non-fiction but what else can we do with the urge to use the fodder of our lives in our stories?

    Thanks Elizabeth.

  15. When we 're-imagine' our lives, as you suggest, Ruth, the consequence may not be factually accurate but the essence of it, if we are as honest as we can be in our writing is emotionaly 'true', and that is the best we can do.

    Besides if we are not authentic in our efforts, I suspect it would shine through and water down the writing.

    Thanks, Ruth.

  16. Those differences between tacit and explicit knowledge sound important, Jim, and I'm grateful to you for writing about them here.

    As you say memory is like a muscle and needs regular exercising. For reasons that I cannot fully fathom I have always exercised my memory. I have always reflected on my past.

    I continue to do so. Since I started to write more 'explicitly about my perspective of my past, I have noticed that my memories shift and change.

    Years ago before I started to write seriously my memories seemed very much more alive to me than they do now. It is as if writing about them reduces them in quality, for me at least.

    I have this sense that if I had left them alone in my mind's memory store and looked at them by myself without telling others about them through my writing, I may well have kept them intact, but every time I write about the past it shifts ever so slightly and those earlier memories seem to lose some of their clarity for me.

    On the other hand, new things crop up for me from time to time, things I had forgotten or thought I had forgotten.

    I agree that fiction seems safer but as you say in this autobiographical age, the age of confession and of reality TV, no one wants to believe anything anymore unless it's a certified 'fact'.

    I think of all those doubters in America over Obama's birth certificate and the death of Bin Laden.

    Some people seem want the so-called absolute truth, but they are the first to disbelieve. Could it be a lack of imagination? Too much concrete thinking? I don't know.

    Thanks, Jim.

  17. I understand what you're saying. Perhaps the problem is calling *anything* an autobiography when really it is – and can only be, when an invidudal's perception, memory, writing skills are involved – a memoir?

  18. I think the word 'poeticize' is a useful one, Lorenzo. It captures something of the ways in which we might try through our writing to re-cast that which in raw factual terms would seem unbearable into something that can be tolerated and viewed again from.

    But, as you say, these arguments are likely to go on chasing one another endlessly without resolution.

    Thanks, Lorenzo.

  19. I'd agree with all you say here, Kirk, though I need to qualify my thoughts about what I describe as the 'desire' for revenge.

    The desire is not the same as the actual taking of revenge, though there are some who might argue that just the fact of writing about something can be a taking of revenge.

    It's vexed and depends in large part on the nature of the writing, the content, the subtleties etc.

    Again it's one of those endlessly contestable issues, this business of motivation for writing.

    It goes beyond the explicit content into much more subtle qualities, such as Jim Murdoch talked about in his earlier comment here.

    Thanks Kirk.

  20. I've just been watching an old BBC documentary and I thought you might find what Christopher Isherwood is talking about of interest:

    In my own life I think I'm rather a past dismisser. In fact I strongly suspect that it's a kind of protective device, that you sort of go on forging ahead with the immediate present, the specious future, and leave the past behind you very much. All this thing with memory to me is just a kind of inhibition. As long as I'm afraid I won't remember of afraid of this or that – not getting things right – I'm inhibited.

    This book I'm writing just now about my mother and father which has me in it – I just put myself in in the third person – I don't dream of imputing anything to this person because I honestly don't know.

    INTERVIEWER: Yes, but do you impute to the others, your parents for instance?

    No, I don't have to because I have my mother's diaries you see (and I … approach the whole thing in an historical sprit as thought I were Professor Trevor Roper or somebody: I reconstruct her and my father) and my father's letters and all this – it's terribly interesting and quite absorbing and I admit I have theories which I put down as theories about her behaviour but I'm so interested there how absolutely unreliable my memory is. It's incredible. I mean I was absolutely under the impression there were tremendous scenes where Irish snipers fired on my father's regiment from the house tops. I guess they did but I can't find anything about it in my mother's diary at all and I really wonder if I didn’t make the whole thing up.


    There's a big sort of redecorating job going on on the past the whole time and I don’t want to be told what the room used to look like, I want to make it like it used to look like according to me.

    Christopher Isherwood, Omnibus interview with Derek Hart, 'A Born Foreigner', 1969

  21. Jim, this is a terrific series of observations from Christopher Isherwood, which perhaps say as much about him as they do about anything or anyone else, including his parents.

    Of course our memories of the past are reconstructions, even with the benefit of our parental diaries or whatever other accounts we have to hand.

    Were Isherwood writing today he might well spell things out a little differently or maybe not.

    It all depends on perspective, and everyone's perspective differs.

    As Hans Loewald said – I think he was the first to say it – 'the past is a foreign country'.

    Thanks again, Jim.

  22. I'm not sure of the distinction between the words memoir and autobiography, Kath. As I understand it, the one relates to aspects of a life, the other to the entire life. Though people tend to use the words interchangeably.

    I wonder, what's your take on the distinction?

    Thanks, Kath.

  23. Memory, perception linked to emotions makes honesty (within the context of truth) unreliable. The same event can be remembered differently by those involved or the experiences each individual has had between the formation of the memory and the memory itself. Does that make it less honest or true?

  24. With apologies for not reading thoroughly all the comments ahead of me which may have already bsaid this before or better, I am struck, E, by two things: first, that so much of the commentary on your works seems to concentrate around the issue of whether it is "true" or not and therefore whether it is "responsible" or not of you to explore certain content that may or may not be drawn from your life. Second was Jim's phrase "fiction is safer." Yikes. Have we come to that, that we crave literal truth and suspect its many guises to the point that authenticy and deftness of expression is so overlooked? You write bravely and beautifully, E, period. So much so I very rarely stop to ask myself if it really happened or what it means if it didin't, or didin't in just that way. For me, it IS happening, as I read it, and that is enough, and for that I thank you.

  25. I am with you. To write as you do, which is excellent should not be restrained because of judgement. I totally agree that we should treat it like fiction. Usually we don't know much about the author of a book so we don't make any assumptions. We are inclined however to form a picture of somebody and make impressions on what information we get. Connect one with the other and put things in boxes. Whe you would do that with my blog, you get completely a wrong impression as my blog is just a small part of me. A part which I could express best through this medium. So what to do, You obviously have a lot of fans, so you reach a lot of people with your writing. Therefore I think it is worth taking the risk and develop in your way. When you get a few negatives, thats the price of standing out but the rewards are bigger I think. Good luck

  26. We can argue over the nature of truth and honesty forever, as you would know Antares.

    The positions we take depend again on our perspectives and life experience.

    These then are curdled by memory and desire.

    Thanks, Antares

  27. I must in some way invite this ongoing debate in my writing about fact and fiction, Two Tigers, perhaps as Jim suggests because I do not signal my intentions from the onset, or perhaps because I do. At least I describe myself as an autobiographer and from this it seems people expect the 'gospel truth'. It is a struggle I have with myself as well.

    Thanks, Two Tigers,for your generous thoughts. They give me heart.

  28. It's not the negatives that trouble me, Marja, it's the focus on fact to the detriment of imagination.

    Helen Garner once complained of the way some people read her books. She described it beautifully:

    'Being permanently primed for battle, they read like tanks. It’s a scorched earth style of reading. It refuses to notice the side-paths, the little emotional and psychological by-roads. It’s a poor sort of reading that refuses the invitation to stop reading and lay down the page and turn attention inwards. And it’s always easier or more comfortable to misread something, to keep it at arm’s length, than to respond to it openly…'

    Maybe I, too, expect too much.

    Thanks, Marja.

  29. Maybe a person under interrogation is the last person to tell one the 'truth'. Maybe autobiography in a world of readers refighting Kursk is too much a sitting duck not to call for tank traps, gun emplacements and the odd well-laid mine.

    Or maybe truth about a person is assembled from many sources, and their own words are just one more source. I prefer direct observation. Inference. Deduction. Analysis.

    But mostly, i suspect, it is because the Self is a fiction. It is narrative we construct about our personhood with tacked together selective memories viewed through either rose-coloured glasses, storm-grey sunglasses, topsy-turvy prisms – takes ya pick.

    Given that understanding, it is inevitable that there are versions of self. They shift over time. They shift with audience. By the time the cupboard of Self has been rummaged for an autobiography to tell our tale, we are pretty close to fiction.

    The pity lies in the procrustean template those with limited imagination, or limited experience of human possibilities, or limited charity of heart impose on writers.

    May they simmer for eternity in their own acerbic juices.

  30. I agree, Harry, the so-called truth about a person is drawn from many sources and one's self is not always the most reliable source and at the same time one's self can be the best guide – a paradox no doubt.

    As you say: 'By the time the cupboard of Self has been rummaged for an autobiography to tell our tale, we are pretty close to fiction'.

    With all these shifts over time through our mutilple selves it is a wonder the arguments over truth versus fiction in literature continue.

    Thanks, Harry.

  31. Maybe you write for the same reason I did while nursing my mother. Writing stories of her last days helped me cope with serious depression that was spoiling the experience.
    I would blog them but they are a bit too long, but they are there to remind me of what happened, the sad and the funny.
    She died on my birthday, which I thought was significant.

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