Keeping secrets

My mantra: write without expectation of any
outcome.  Write into the
Grade two, 1960, seven years old, pen in hand.
And then I go into a
non-fiction class where the facilitator reckons that anyone who can’t write five
sentences on what her book is about is in trouble, or words to that
effect.  I challenged the
We are talking about
different processes and perhaps even different times in the life of a
book.  I may well still be at the
beginning whereas she’s talking about the end phase when the book needs to come
I stood over the cats this morning
as the boy tried to pinch the last of his sister’s food before he had decided
to leave.  He’s a real standover
merchant and so I stood over him, ordering him out of the house until his
sister had finished.
I told the non-fiction writer that
I love to write.  That was a
mistake.  Besides it is not true,
not entirely true.  I write because
I need to write, because not to write would leave me feeling as if my life has
no purpose or meaning.  
I write to
find that meaning and to make sense of my life, but that is not something I
love, not really.  It’s more like
something I am compelled to do, for the pleasure it gives – and indeed it gives
me pleasure – and also for the need.
Hilary Mantel in her essay, ‘Diary’ writes about her experience of hospitalisation for surgery that went
wrong.  She describes her
hallucinations, her ‘hallies’ as she calls them, as if they are real and no
doubt they were real to her when they appeared to her mid fever and pain.  But towards the end of her essay she
talks about her reservations about this writing.  As if she is fearful of being included among the so-called ‘confessional writers’, those who, to use her words, ‘chase their own ambulances’. 
Is that what it’s all about, this
writing of mine?  
I asked a friend
to define the expression.  ‘Chasing
your own ambulance’, as he understands it, means to go looking for an accident,
to write about your trauma, as if to bear witness, thereby encouraging the
reader also to bear witness.  
the word ‘confessional’, despite its religious connotations of admitting to
sin, can also mean the notion of disclosing something that has hitherto
remained hidden.  It has perhaps a
more neutral tone, though the notion of sharing secrets to me does not.
For some reason secrets carry the
weight of sin.  Why else keep
something secret unless somewhere along the road there is some sense that
someone has done wrong?  That
someone has something to hide and that something stirs up anxiety or fear.  
We don’t keep unimportant things secret. 
Keeping things secret takes an
effort, which is not to say there aren’t many things we might repress, seemingly
without effort.  They slip out of consciousness and only crop up when the
pressures they exert for exposure rise to the surface.  How did Freud term it? ‘the return of the repressed.’  But that’s not the same as deliberately keeping a secret, one that refuses to leave your consciousness.  
I have long tried to understand my
inability to learn while I was first at university from eighteen years of age
till I was twenty two and went out into the world to take on my first job.  Certainly numbers had me
In places they talk of a
female phobia of mathematics and perhaps of the sciences generally, that goes back in
time.  Certainly in my family my father’s
conviction that girls were good for nothing apart from housework, child rearing and
sexual comfort held sway.  
Despite this, my
mother read all her life.  She
still does.  But in my father’s
mind her reading was limited to trashy romance or pot boilers and religious
propaganda like the Catholic Tribune and the Advocate.
The education system within the
Catholic schools I attended both in my primary years and at secondary level
added to this fantasy of female inferiority.  
The focus was on
memory, which we polished with rote learning. Understanding why people might
behave as they do, as explored through English literature and history books,  came through a thick layer of religious conviction. 
For instance, Attila the Hun was a barbarian
who sought to overthrow the Christians. We read and rote learned the lives of
the saints and were encouraged to practice with sincerity and devotion, and an eye to our
calling as dedicated to others.  
we were not called to follow God as priests and nuns, then marriage was
the only option, marriage to another Catholic with whom we would bring up
several children, as did my mother, but she had married a convert.  Mixed marriages were then frowned upon. 
There was a system of rules in place that barred deeper explorations of the
meaning of things and I did not come to understand the meaning of the words, concepts and theories until much later in life.  
There were facts and religious beliefs, faith and goodness.  Others practised evil and wrong doing. 
We should not and that was all.  A black and white world, and one which I now prefer to avoid, especially in my writing, other than to describe it.  

46 thoughts on “Keeping secrets”

  1. I think you're right (or write) on.

    I find the whole debate on "confessional" writing, "non-fiction," "memoir," etc. and whether it's "real writing" or "worthy" somewhat tedious. To me the stringing together of words to make story and meaning and art is not something that one must qualify — except by it's effectiveness in conveying that story and the skill and beauty utilized.

    Now the Catholic learning stuff is something altogether different, but I really liked how you wove that into this post —

  2. If that's what chasing your own ambulances means, then my Aussie travel tales loudly & proudly fall into that category!! Although I'd never thought of it like that before!!

    And sometimes secrets are kept for the simple fact of knowing something that you alone have the power to divulge – the actual content is immaterial.

  3. Like you, (sometimes) "I write to find that meaning and to make sense of my life."

    I am surprised by your comment that "for some reason secrets carry the weight of sin." I would suggest that, on the other hand, secrets — confided — carry the joy of trust shared. Which is also true of some private confessions. More public confessions — whether of religion, politics, economic or something else — are statements of considered certitude and principle, meant to engage the thinking of others.

    And yes, there is a black and white world, with at least 8 shades of grey in the middle. Which challenges us to think beyond a yes-no moral theology. A theology which virtually ignores the context in which a situation needs to be considered. (Good grief; you're bringing out the moral theologian in me.)

  4. You had a pen in grade two?
    We weren't allowed pens until grade three (1960 for me)and even then only when our cursive writing was satisfactorily legible. Then it was pen and ink time and if we blotted our work by dipping too much ink, we had to go back to pencils for a week as punishment. No biros were allowed until grade six.

  5. I think your facilitator is just another level or step or 'annoyance' (for what of a better word) that is part of the 'black and white' world you write about growing up in.

    There are no rules in writing and I wouldn't know how to sum up what I do (or the three fledgling novels that lie, unattended at around 10-20,000 words each). Nor should I have to.

    Write and be damned. And I mean that in the most admiring sense possible as whatever you produce I read with eagerness and enlightenment.

  6. I am not sure what people were thinking back then or when she used the term "chasing your own ambulance" but I suspect I am reading it wrong because the host that is your body, depends on your spirit to maintain the level of coordination and complete cooperation so that all 'cylinders' so to speak fire on time. It is really quite a miracle that it happens at all and not an easy task to maintain, even when fully present, let alone the several feet you would be physically away from your body if you were chasing an ambulance which carried your body.

    Life doesn't take place for very long without yourself in it. And it is rumored that it is visibly apparent once the soul steps out of the body, even if it is only a couple feet away from it.

    Maybe she meant she does not want to feel greedy, as in knowing it may bring a financial reward. Because the only context I know that statement from is in reference to lawyers who know the law well enough to exploit it for money. And those who exploit laws for any reason are likely part of the problem and not the solution, for if the know how to exploit it they probably know how to fix it so that it protects those who may have a legitimate reason to exploit it.

    Secrets sometimes are sacred, and only have value to you and your loved ones. That is a privacy that only you and your loved have the right to share. People who are worthy of such sacredness for you to share secrets with will never threaten you with exposure nor hold anything over your head. If they do, at least from my experience, those secrets are not held sacred in their eyes may not be worthy of sharing the parts of you and your life that are private.

    You should trust your opinion on the matter and the opinion of those you have found worthy of sharing your secrets.

    Like River, I too wasn't allowed to use pens the first few years of school, and we had to were uniforms, clothes that made us look as one would expect characters in the Sound of Music or Hansel and Gretchen.

  7. I’ve just finished a long post on the subject of privacy. It’ll be months before I post it but the main thrust of it is my attempt to come to a clearer understanding of the expression “the value of privacy.” Who assigns that value and is it good that privacy (and, by extension, secrets) have a value? How do you feel when a friend opens up and tells you a secret? If it had no value what would be the point? I won’t spoil the articles—there are two—by trying to make my point here but I think it’s a good point. There are loads of things that I’ve not told my wife about my life. There was no way I could cover every day I’d lived without her and so I have a head full of hundreds upon hundreds of things that could be looked upon as secrets but they’re not really secrets, are they? I don’t think I’ve ever talked about my first kiss with her. It’s no big secret. I’m not actually sure my recollection of it is a hundred percent accurate but I suppose, irrespective of its size, it is still a secret.

    Privacy comes in two main flavours: the American ‘leave me be’ and the European ‘respect me’ and both are valid interpretations of the word. Respect, of course, is earned; that’s what I was always taught. You could—theoretically at least—place a value on a person’s privacy, his or her right to keep secrets. Kids generally are made to feel that they have less of a right to keep secrets than adults do. There are good reasons why because keeping a secret is more a matter of judgement than simply choice. Occasionally my secrets appeal to me when I’m writing to allow me to reveal them and whenever that happens I make a judgement call. The expression ‘ambulance chasers’ brings to mind unscrupulous individuals who hope to prosper at the expense of another. These sick or injured people generally do require legal representation but it’s regarded as unsavoury to seek out this work; let it come to you. So what’s my take on ‘chasing your own ambulance’?

    There is healthy writing and unhealthy, writing that resolves issues and writing that allows us to wallow in them. If, like me, you’ve been writing for a few years and feel the well is getting a little dry you might be tempted, if you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors, to scrape the bottom of the barrel to rake up your own muck for the sake of squeezing another book out, a book that might not be ready to be written. When I conceived the idea for my novel Left my aim was to explore my (apparent) lack of grief or (possible) inability to grieve. That was the plan and, yes, I have a character who finds she, too, cannot grieve but that’s really not what the book ended up being about. I didn’t force the issue but allowed my writing to reveal other ‘secrets’—secret even to me you have to understand—about myself. These weren’t repressed things, simply things I have never tried to articulate; I found words for them. This was healthy writing; the subject came to me and not the other way round.

    Was the writing ‘confessional’? Yes, in that I was opening up and revealing something about me that no one knew for sure even if they had their suspicions. But the whole point to the confessional is to seek forgiveness and absolution for a sin. What Left reveals about me is a side of me that I am neither ashamed of nor proud about. This is who I am. I have limitations. I would never go and seek God’s forgiveness for being myopic so why seek anyone’s forgiveness for certain personality traits or even look for them to understand? Or what about me? Am I looking to make this statement about who I am and then seek my own approval or at least acceptance? That I’m willing to accede to. We write so that we can stand apart from the words the better to gauge their validity.

    For years I kept my writing secret. Did I think I had done something wrong writing those words? No. I simply had no one I wanted to share them with. Secrets don’t have to be forever. In time the right person came along, someone who valued me and who I thought was worth sharing with.

  8. I enjoy writing, although I also have the purpose of not telling stories over and over to my children. Not because I've become old and repetative, but because they claim never to have heard it before. And I had the massive stroke! I've even indexed for them.

    But, there are things I'll never tell/write about. Just as there are chapters of my adult childrens' lives I will never know of and should be happy not to, there are parts of my life I would not confess. If I told, they probably wouldn't remember, anyway.

    I did enjoy your foiling the food snatch. I'm sure it's a game for the boy. Taking it is a goal scored and being deterred is a good block on mom's part.

  9. I realised after I pushed the button to publish here, Elizabeth, that I'm at it again: writing about the confessional writing stuff, the fact and fiction, the self justification.

    I find it tedious as much as the rest of us and yet I cannot help but do battle with these ideas from time to time. It's like I'm tackling the censor in my head. I have to do it again and again to get past it.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  10. The definition of chasing ambulances was news to me, Red Nomad, but t makes sense. It needn't be al negative either. I think there's huge merit in the notion of bearing witness. As for secrets, I suppose I should have qualified the notion. As you say some things we keep to ourselves might be immaterial, but it's the things we have to work at keeping to ourselves that might be otherwise.

  11. I've decided to tell everything.

    It's embarrassing to contemporary readers. "Oh, but this is Australia!"

    Yes, as big a shithole as anywhere.

  12. I like your ruminative writing, the thinking aloud, and if it's born of anxiety at times, that's fine. Questioning, exploring, trying things out. I find these interesting and worthwhile. Pronouncing, declaring, and prescribing. I am more dubious of these, though they are seductive. They sound so confident, they must be right, I think at first. But when one bit is revealed to be in error, the whole becomes suspect. While the work of questioning, exploring, this work goes on.

  13. The thing about a secret, Rob-bear, is the minute you share it, it's no longer a secret. Unless it can be kept to one or two people involved, it spreads.

    You know the way it is. We tend to have rules about keeping secrets along such lines as: it's okay to tell my partner -we have no secrets; it's okay to tell my therapist/priest – such confidences will never be shared; it's okay to tell my mother, sister, my best friend – they'd never let it leak.

    But of course in time someone tells someone else outside the circle, and the further removed the more likely, and it's no longer a secret. It reminds me of that glorious sermon from the film, Doubt. Do you know it? I'll post it here if there's room.

    In the middle of the film, Father Flynn gives a sermon after he becomes aware of the head nun, Sister Aloysius’s campaign to discredit and get rid of him.

    ‘A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew. I know none of you have ever done this. That night she had a dream a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke. She told him the whole thing.
    ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing his finger at me? Should I be asking for absolution, Father? Tell me, have I done something wrong?’
    ‘Yes,’ Father O’Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly brought up female, you’ve borne false witness against your neighbor. You’ve played fast and loose with his reputation and you should be heartily ashamed.’
    So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
    ‘Not so fast,’ says O’Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife and return here to me.’
    So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof and stabbed the pillow, then went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
    ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says.
    ‘Yes, Father.’
    ‘And what was the result?’
    ‘Feathers,’ she said.
    ‘Feathers,’ he repeated.
    ‘Feathers everywhere, Father.’
    ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind.
    ‘Well,’ she said. ‘It can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’
    ‘And that,’ said Father O’Rourke, is gossip.

    Thanks, Rob-bear.

  14. I think the pen in the picture is a prop, River. We were not allowed fountain pens or biros until at least grade five and six when we were ten or so. Biros were not encouraged as I recall but fountain pens licenses were something we earned with time and neatness.

    Thanks, River.

  15. Write and be damned, as you say Kath. We cop it all the time as writers. If we are lucky enough to be read, there are those – notably those we know from other walks of life – who will howl in protest: what gives you the right?

    But we defy the rules, written and unwritten ad struggle on regardless. It's only that it gets to me from time to time and I tend to deal with angst by writing about it – and occasionally put the agonies up on my blog.

    Thanks, Kath.

  16. I've seen a picture of you as a school child on your blog, Dusty, at least at the time in the label below you identified it as you. You had a mop of blond hair and looked altogether like a little girl. Is this how you looked at school or is that some other identity?

    I think the notion of chasing ambulances is intended as a metaphor only. And yes, I've heard the term used by lawyers and even by journalists, as a means of making money.

    Thanks, Dusty Who.

  17. Gerald Murnane comes to mind, when I read your comment here, Jim. As you know Gerald Murnane, that wonderful Australian writer – one whose writing we both admire – has a series of filing cabinets in which he keeps much of his unpublished writing, most of it in the form of letters to and from others. He also has a section sealed off and labelled to be read only several years after his death, in which I'd say he keeps certain secrets.

    They may not be secret to those near and dear to him but they are things he has needed to write about for whatever reason but does not want them to be read while he's around and even for sometime after, presumably to protect his family, those who might outlive him.

    I have writing that I plan to leave hidden until after I'm gone. Sometimes I wish I could write for some future audience one who will not be troubled by any of the details I write in real terms but will only be interested in the story.

    Please let me know when you post your privacy essay. These days I don't get around to other people's blogs as much as I'd like. I'm finding it hard to keep up with my own blog let alone do justice to other peoples', though I wish I could.

    My daughters reckon I'm becoming increasingly anti social at home. I reckon the same is happening within the blogosphere. There's so little time. It's not a good enough excuse I know, but it's mine.

    Besides I must allow time to write and read outside of the light of day in order to get this book put together.

    Thanks, Jim.

  18. I'm often having to stand over the cats, Joanne. I enjoy taking a hard line with them speaking sternly as though I am a real school mam.

    I agree with you and others here, there are things we will all keep it ourselves, not necessarily in the form of secrets. We cannot account for and record our entire lives. A few have tried, and it seems to me , it's a pointless exercise. There's often more meaning in what we omit than in what we include and there's always the stuff of reading between the lines.

    Thanks, Joanne.

  19. There's another saying, Rob-bear, that comes to me in response to your second comment here: 'violence is a crime'.

    Not always of course, but there are times when to remain silent is a cop-out with dreadful consequences.

  20. Hilary Mantel is a marvelous writer, Laoch and sounds to me like a terrific woman from the little I know of her. Her diary confirms this. I value her downright honesty.

    Thanks, Laoch.

  21. You have no secrets it seems Robert and tell us a great deal, but I'm still left with the thought that some of it might be exaggerated to give us a rise. Yet isn't that the way of most writing?

    Thanks, Robert.

  22. I'm with you here, Glenn, on the value of exploring and questioning over and above the business of passing judgments. I suppose we need both, but I'm most comfortable with the former.

    Thanks, Glenn.

  23. I find it strange, the way writers convince themselves that their form of writing is the only or most valid one, and forms which they would or could not wrestle with are less valuable.

  24. You generalise, make assumptions. It's all stock psychology, $19.95.

    Do you know Sean M, Camberwell solicitor, who conned my MG sportscar from me for 'legal fees' and whose incompetence sent me down the river anyway? I tell the truth. I don't exaggerate, there's nothing in it for me. Telling the truth restores people, most won't do it because they're scared. There's the choice.

  25. Writing to know what you are thinking. Self-exploration and self-revelation. Writing becaus it's as necessary a breathing, because it's necessary to life. As Jim says, a winter is someone who's first response to life is to write about it.

    I see you do those things all the time. Secrets aren't confessional if they're grist for the mills of enlightenment. I think confessional writing is what many narcissists do, but not what YOU do.

    And I've said before, making art is the best revenge. It helps me cope. It keeps me alive, gives me reason keep going. Writing about my own past and present challenges isn't confessional (who cares anyway?) when the purpose of doing so is to help me survive another day or so.

    I think you make art to live, to discover, to go on. No guilt is required.

  26. Once I get into a groove, I can really ejoy writing. The hard part is finding the entrance to that groove.

    Gore Vidal once said writing is thinking. I write to know what I'm thinking, as someone else just pointed out, but also, quite frankly, to let others know that I'm even capable of thinking. I write because I'm a lousy talker. I want the impression I leave on people to be something other than a stammer. I write because I have a view of the world I want to share. I write because I want people to know it is POSSIBLE to have a view of the world. A view of the world outside the general consensus. I write as a final stand. Writing is my Alamo. Er…perhaps that not the best metaphor to use.

    I also write because I'm a fan of certain writers. They're my heroes, my role models.

    I don't write confessional or whatever you call it. Not yet, anyway. Someday I might, but I don't want to do it unless I can TRANSCEND the confessional, make those deep, dark secrets universal. Anything less than that and you risk turning yourself into a freak show.

  27. This battle over what's legitimate and what's not in writing can become tedious, Dave. We persevere in spite of it. The pressure is on to meet the so-called needs or wishes of the public and those who filter what gets through with our own perspective on what you 'need' to say and write.

    A blog at least allows more freedom.

    Thanks, Dave

  28. I don't know Sean M, Camberwell solicitor, Robert, but I commiserate with your story and I agree: to speak the so-called truth, in so far as we are able, is oftentimes more helpful than keeping it to ourselves, but it takes courage.

    Thanks, Robert.

  29. What a coincidence, Davide, we share the same age. It's not such a bad stage of life, though those who are younger might think not, and those older might long to return to that age.

    Thanks, Davide.

  30. Thanks for letting me off the hook, Art: No guilt required, you say. It helps of course to hear these things. And thanks for reminding me yet again of Jim's notion that 'a writer is someone who's first response to life is to write about it'. Even the impulse can cause guilt, especially when you're standing at the bedside of a dying relative and you feel the impulse to describe the experience as you're going through it. There's a certain callousness in that. But how else can you remember if you don't put you're mind to it even as it's happening.

    Thanks, Art.

  31. I'd hate to turn myself into a freak show, Kirk, though it's possible I suppose. I think the quality of the writing helps transcend the gratuitous and therefore narcissistic elements that tend not to let a reader in and are more about the writer's needs to get it out.

    I enjoy your description of why you write. Essentially, like me, I suspect you write to be heard, to find a voice, to figure it out, to think, etc etc.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  32. I'm surprised that your writing facilitator would pronounce on what is a marketing issue, and not a writing issue. Her remarks sound very inhibiting.

    When I'm writing, I have to push marketing descriptions out of my mind, and just focus on the task in hand. Much later, when a book is complete and at the editing stage, I change mind-set and think about how I'd describe it to a reader. But while I'm still in the process of writing – impossible! – and definitely not necessary, or even a good idea.

  33. The song, "Breathe" by Anna Nalick says it all for me.

    2 AM and I'm still awake, writing a song
    If I get it all down on paper, it's no longer inside of me,
    Threatening the life it belongs to
    And I feel like I'm naked in front of the crowd
    Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud…

  34. I so empathised with the begininng of your post as my need to write is just so. It is good to see it written down by another. Also, I felt sad that Hilary Mantel had to wonder about sharing a painful part of her life. I admire her writing greatly, and as a person that she had the courge to share this.

    You are right in that life is not black and white – a blinkered view – and I dislike the way in which people often want to parcel up a person into a category when each is an individual – with totally different motives in life. I wonder why another person can not just be appreciated for who they are … and not analysed.

    Thank you for provoking my thoughts!

  35. I agree, Juliet but to give her credit it may be that the facilitator reckons we are or at least ought to be at the end stage. Most of us I'd say are not.

    Thanks for your commiseration. It's tough when every bone in your body points you in one direction and your 'leader' points you in another with which you heartily disagree.

  36. Anna Nalick's lyrics resonate, Birdie.

    'I feel like I'm naked in front of the crowd
    Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud…'


  37. I'm pleased to have provoked your thoughts, Aguja. It's the lot of the writer to be judged, not just for what she has written but for her motivations and the effect she might have on her readership and lots more besides.

    Sometimes I feel like saying to people who criticise me for the fact of writing, more so than for the content: why don't you go out there and put your thoughts and feelings onto the page for public view and then judge.

    The most cruel critics tend to be those who don't write.

    Thanks, Aguja.

  38. Dear Elisabeth,
    I always return here as your writing fascinates me, because it is deeply personal.
    We all have secrets, or rather undisclosed moments in our past. The most interesting people I know have secrets. I believe in keeping them, and there is noting wrong in doing so, even from people we trust and share everything with. It only goes wrong when we are asked a direct question about such a moment by such a person and when we then lie.;) If we trust that person, the truth should be easy to tell.
    Your upbringing in school reminds me of my own, it was not geared in religious manner, but a communistic one.;) The same dogma though.;)
    Have a nice weekend,

  39. Sorry for the belated response here, Zuzana. The personal itself is often the stuff of secrets, and this in some ways is what makes it difficult to wrote. We get caught up in protecting ourselves and others.

    Dogma in education whether of the religious type or any other ideology has its problems, as you'd well know. I'm glad we both survived ours.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *