Have you ever been written about?

It’s the oddest sensation to find yourself in the pages of someone else’s story. My friend Carrie Tiffany – I mention her by name because she is a writer and has published a story and therefore presumably does not need to remain anonymous, as so many others do – has written a story in which she includes a brief description of a time we spent together several years ago now.

It’s a sympathetic portrait and there’s nothing in it to feel ashamed about. Carrie had mentioned it to me even as she was writing the story out of concern for my sensitivities. The vignette is merely a side tributary on the river of this wonderful story, which is well worth reading.

Many years ago when I discussed some of my concerns about writing about my siblings and how they might feel, my then writing teacher asked if I’d ever been written about. As if I could only judge the experience through my own experience.

It’s the oddest sensation. That’s me there on the page, the ‘Liz’ a peripheral character, who in Carrie’s story spells her name with ‘z’ and not an ‘s’, that’s me, and yet it’s not me at all. I’ve been fictionalised.

It’s a me from the past, snap frozen in time, a tiny cameo of my husband and me, one winters day, I say winter because if it was written six months after my husband’s heart attack, then it must have been the wintertime, but it could just have easily happened in the summer.

I write about this experience here now because I am pondering the issue of finding yourself described in someone else’s pages and how unsettling this can be, however much we know it to be fictionalised. I’m also wondering about the degree to which all creative writing however much it is described as non-fiction and allegedly therefore based on the so-called truth is in fact a fiction.

The minor characters, Liz and Bob, in Carrie’s story are fictional characters however much based on real life characters. We know this and yet we tend to argue in polarities. Either it’s true – non-fiction, or it’s not – and therefore its fiction.

It can’t be both, and yet it is both.

And here I intersperse a photo break, a poorly captured image of my husband and me on our wedding day, to add to Carrie’s image of Liz and Bob well before any of this happened.

I enjoy featuring in Carrie’s story because it gives me a different perspective of myself. Is that how I look/looked to her then. She ascribes such kind motives to me. It’s true I had wanted to reassure her in some way about her heart, as I believe had my husband, but I think I am not as benign as Carrie’s Liz comes across.

Even the fact that I write about this now makes me wonder whether it’s not a sort of retaliation. You write about me and I’ll write about you. But now I write about a real person who is also a fictional character and quake inside because Carrie reads my blog.

I’m giving a talk in a couple of weeks on the topic of ‘Auto/biography’: an excess of fiction or in excess of it? As chance would have it, and chance/serendipity is such a wonderful companion, my copy of William Michaelian’s, A Listening Thing, arrived during the week.

I opened the first pages and found these wonderful words in his preface. ‘We can’t escape the fact that life is fiction, and fiction is life – a point upon which science and the practical mind are tragically confused. The practical mind says, ‘That which is imagined does not really exist’ and science which wears matching socks even on weekends, trots out any number of laws to support this bland assumption. But laws are yesterday’s news, placeholders until something even more sensible comes along. Then we laugh at the old laws, just as if an alien race had made them, a race comprised of beings not nearly as smart as we – while, thanks to laws and our adherence to them, and worship of them, we have forgotten more of value than we will ever know, which is to say an arrogant, universal thimbleful.’’

So William too writes about a fictional character, Stephen Monroe, who is also himself, the author and narrator, William Michaelian, but at the same time not himself.

If this stuff ties you up in knots I’m not surprised. I find myself twisting over myself in trying to find a way of describing something that seems so intangible.

Why does it make us flinch to be written about? According to Helen Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself…You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

When I read about myself on the page, it’s like looking into one of those distorted mirrors you find at a circus. There’s one in the children’s section at the Melbourne Museum. I went there during the week with my grandson and we looked at ourselves reflected there. Three mirrors flowed down the wall, the one flat, the other convex, and the third concave.

In the two distorted mirrors we saw ourselves, stunted and deformed, too tall in the neck, too short in the torso, and as we giggled and danced in front of our images, they became even more deformed.

We came back three times. To be able to contort our self image into so many odd shapes and sizes gave us great pleasure, the same pleasure I find when I or someone else uses my form and tries to shape me into something that is not quite how I see myself from the inside.

But even myself inside feels like that person in the mirror, too long here, too wide there, a leery grin here, eyes too big in my head there, a caricature of myself, whoever she is, in all her many manifestations.

I came into the kitchen just now, early morning and no one else is awake as yet, and found one of the cats chewing on the remains of what looked to be a mouse. I approached with the intention of retrieving the mouse. For some reason I do not enjoy the sight or sound of a cat munching on mice bones.

The cat let our a low growl. He wasn’t giving up his prey so easily. In the end I left him to it, but wondered why with full bowls of perfectly produced shop bought cat food, the stuff the cats generally prefer, the stuff that comes in tins from the supermarket, should this cat prefer his own caught mouse, disgusting bones and all?

I’m not a cat. I cannot say, but perhaps it’s the same as in the writing process. We land on something and cannot let it go. We gnaw away at it or it gnaws away at us and will not let us be.

Have you ever been written about? How was it for you? Disarming, disturbing, delightful? Or something else altogether? Anything’s possible.

Autobiography is not Confession.

Recently at a seminar, after I had presented a paper on Straddling Two Worlds, about my difficulties of working both as a therapist and as an auto biographer, an audience member asked about the need to question the impact of autobiographical/confessional writing.

Initially I was flummoxed by her question, and disturbed by her insistence that we should interrogate the value, and the consequences of the impact of confessional writing on others who might also be involved and on readers.

I am hazy about the exact nature of her question and comments, only that they have continued to rankle over the past few days. They rattle around in my head like so many loose bullets about to explode.

And then it came to me. I object to her use of the word ‘confessional’. I object to people using the word ‘confessional’ as if it is synonymous with ‘autobiographical’.

I have made my confession many times in my early life, from the time I was seven years old when I went for my first holy confession, to the time I was nineteen years old when I gave it all away.

‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It is one month since my last confession. I accuse myself of…’ I then manufactured safe sins, sins like telling lies twice, stealing once, and disobedience.

The sin of disobedience sat uncomfortably. I was an obedient child. Other people disobeyed. Not me, not then. But in confession it seemed safer to admit to disobedience than to mention my real sins, my sins of impurity.

I convinced myself that ‘hell fire and damnation’ awaited me at the end because from the time I was twelve years old, from the time I noticed my body changing, from the time I felt the first rush of desire towards my own body and that of another, I was tortured. These were the sins to which I could not admit. If I were to admit such sins to the priest, questions would follow.

How did I know this? How did I know that the priest would ask questions about my impure thoughts and that he would not otherwise bother to inquire into my sins of theft, dishonesty and disobedience?

I learned early, the day I took hold of a man’s penis under the bridge that spanned Canterbury Road, after which the man gave me sixpence because I did as he had asked – I held his penis and watched the cream come out.

I have written long stories about this moment in my life, this moment when I first took hold of a man’s penis. I kept it secret at the time from my sister and my brother who had come along with me on this outing and who had wandered off when the man called me over. The next day I told my mother about it. My mother suggested I take the details to confession. It was then I decided my sin must be serious.

For the uninitiated, confessional boxes are like coffins standing on end, narrow dark closets, in which you are immediately faced with a wooden paneled wall after you walk through the door and there is room only for you to kneel. At eye height once on your knees, there is a grille that the priest slides open when it comes your turn to confess. There is a confessional box on either side of the central chamber in which the priest sits. You speak into the grille hot and breathless and the priest mumbles and murmurs.

The only time a priest ever questioned me about my sins was after I told him about the man whose penis I had held.
What did you do? What did the man do? The priest asked. He wanted all the details.

Usually after I had confessed to my sins, the priest offered easy absolution, a few Hail Mary’s, an Our Father. But this time, he ordered an entire decade of the rosary. I concluded my sin was enormous. And thereafter I shied off telling a priest in confession anything other than my rote learned mandatory sins.

This long digression into my early confessional experience is my attempt to tell you that confession is the place in which you admit to your sins. Autobiography is the place in which you write about your life. The two are not synonymous.

My life as I write it is not simply a list of my sins. I hope I have the courage to bear witness to my mistakes and misdemeanors in my writing if necessary but that is not all that I write. I do not confess my sins in my writing. I am not on the lookout for absolution or redemption. I do not want forgiveness.

If I were confessing my sins here on the page then I would turn my readers into my priest, the one who passes judgment on behalf of God, who can decide whether I am worthy of forgiveness and how I might go about gaining that forgiveness.

As William Michaelian says in a comment on Paul L. Martin’s post, Looking around the Blogosphere, on The Teacher’s View blog,
‘I want what all writers, artists, and human beings want, whether they publicly admit it or not: I want to be understood; I want to be appreciated; I want to be known and recognized in my lifetime…’

I do not want to confess my sins. I want to share my story.