Too much pepper

I blogged a poem about childhood abuse yesterday and shuddered at the possible response. People do not like to read these things, I imagined.

On the contrary people have been kind, as so often happens in the blogosphere. I should respond to you all and soon enough I will.

After I had posted my abuse poem, I asked myself, was it by way of abuse of my audience, that I should inflict on them something of that painful experience, that I should make them squirm and feel uncomfortable.

So the very fact of putting writing out there, presenting it to an audience for their ‘consumption’ might well be akin to putting a meal on the table that you hope your guests will enjoy, even as you know it might be unfamiliar to them, too many foreign flavours, or could it be you have added too much pepper, too much spice and the flavours clash with the predictability of their palates and they cannot take in what you have offered them?

Why is it that when we write about something, we are often seen to be doing it?

33 thoughts on “Too much pepper”

  1. If I understand your question correctly it’s because, especially with poetry, people assume that what we write is autobiographical. This assumption has arisen I would imagine because most people’s experiences of poetry is autobiographical. Not many people write novels but most everyone has a crack at an angst-filled poem or two growing up. They write about what’s in their heads and assume that’s the length and breadth of poetry. For some it is, those who write confessional stuff; they are the source material as well as the filter. I remember one poet talking about reading in front of a group a poem not unlike the one you posted and someone coming up after to offer sympathy only to be told that it was all made up and receiving dog’s abuse from the person as if they’d somehow been cheated. Who says that poetry has to be autobiographical?

    As for the child abuse angle. It used to be that we all knew someone who had suffered from cancer. Nowadays the same could be said about child abuse. I’ve no doubt that its prevalence has increased but it’s always been there. It simply never received the publicity that it’s getting at the moment. It used to be imaginary monsters under our beds, then it was Reds and now it’s paedophiles.

  2. The spices all added to the experience of the poem. The content means so much especially when a serious subject. When it serious it must be real and it must have happened is how I think most will read it.

  3. While I disagree with Jim on the nature of poetry (as he says the debate is still raging on that subject), I have very little to add to his well rounded answer to your question.

    Working from the same assumption as to its meaning as he, I would only add the factor of most people being glued in reality. When they are presented with an image that has the trappings of reality for them –theme, shape, color, form, feeling, sound, smell, etc…- they expect it to be real. The emotion it evokes within them certainly is, and many people can't conceive of creating reality from intangible wisps of imagination.

    Mildly unrelated anecdote:
    Inmates from a prison were forbidden from AD&D (a role-playing system) because wardens feared it would fuel escapism and encourage the prisoners to run away. Here we're talking about fighting dragons and trolls… If a subject that far removed from reality can provoke miscomprehension, it's only to be expected that a subject that is that much closer to the reality of the reader (directly, indirectly) will confuse the unwary that much more.

  4. Thanks again, Jim for your thoughts. I agree with you, that there is an unwarranted assumption that poetry is autobiographical. But I suppose it depends on your definition of what's autobiographical.

    I'd argue that all these things happen by degrees. I wrote this post with thoughts of revenge against writers for writing things that iunsettle readers.

    Did you read or hear about the furor over Kathryn Harrison's memoir, The Kiss?

    It tells the story of Harrison's life with a cold distancing mother, a father who left the family home when Harrison was tiny and then returned into her life when she was a late adolescent/young adult.

    The two, father and daughter then had an affair, which Harrison details in her memoir.

    The cries of indignation were extraordinary to my way of thinking, including a certain James Wolcott who in one review told Harrison to 'shut up'.

    The book is beautifully written and he response were full of righteous indignation. It's the righteous indignation that I find so difficult to tolerate.

    Sorry, I've gone off the track a bit here, as is my custom.

    Thanks again Jim, for your wise words.

  5. Thanks again to you too Anthony, for following on in this, what to me seems important discussion – the difference between content and form, fact and fiction, autobiography and much more besides.

  6. Thanks Alesa, for your thoughts.

    I'm reading an essay on the subject of autobiography in the New Yorker. 'But Enough about Me' by Daniel Mendelssohn.

    It's terrific in that he traces the history of the genre back to Saint Augustine's day – mind you most theorists do that – but he brings it up to the present hunger for reality TV, the hunger for confession, redemption, tales of adventure, and more so today, tales of abjection, stories of how people behave badly and survive.

    Fascinating stuff. You're right, I think, about this tendency in all of us to look for the so-called 'real' in writing. Why ever not this pressure at the moment to know that this film etc is based on a true story.

    It's just much harder to critique autobiographical writing to the actual writer's face because everyone worries more that the writer will take it personally.

    To my way of thinking this reservation is unhelpful, when it comes to working on improving the writing. In any case, once the words are written to me they cease to be an accurate statement of the person themselves.

    Margaret Atwood talks about writers as two, a sort of doppelganger, the writer and the writing. I'm inclined to agree with her.

    Thanks again, Alesa.

  7. I missed yesterday's post, but have now caught up. The poem was beautifully judged, in my opinion. Very cleverly conceived and executed with with sensitivity and courage. You are to be congratulated. I do not see how anyone could take exception to it.

  8. there's a place where writing, (like music, like art,like all creative endeavour) comes from. it so wishes to be heard that it finds a place and a person to pass through so as to reach the people it needs to reach. steven

  9. I believe that art that unsettles us is as important as art that soothes us. As well, art that is conceived thinking of the reaction of the viewer or reader does not come truly from the heart – it comes from the head as you adjust your strokes to evoke the desired reaction. To my mind, when our actions are based on how someone might react, we have abandoned ourself and our actions lack authenticity.

  10. Elisabeth – In my experience, here in Mormondumb, people definitely don't want to hear about the prevalent abuse rampant in their midst. Both my daughter and I were abused by men as an indirect result of the 'power of the priesthood' type mentality. I believe it is the same in any society. People are so uncomfortable with abusers' revelations, they label the teller hysterical and abusive. Guess what, we are hysterical, until we are acknowledged and on the road to recovery.

  11. I do think that one of the most important of any writer's capacities is empathy. That is, to be able to fully imagine what it is like to be someone else entirely and then communicate that someone else to the reader. I guess, though, that most readers, not being writers, don't have the capacity for empathy to such a great degree and thus they can't imagine how the work is not autobiographical when it feels so real. It doesn't help, either, that we have a tendency to distinguish between imaginary experience and material experience and believe only the latter is real. If that makes sense.

    Also, for me art is about having my assumptions challenged rather than validated. I want to be destabilized and pushed off the cushions by art. Mostly because it prepares me to deal with the cold concrete bench I too often find myself trying to perch on in life.

  12. I like your analogy of putting out a meal and hoping your guests will enjoy it or at least find it interesting, despite the fact that it contains some unfamiliar dishes. My personal experience has been this: I am driven to tell certain things that have happened in my life. Some of them are not pretty. I don't mean to horrify readers OR draw sympathy. What I really seek is "That happened to me, too". Sometimes two people can only share the experience, with neither having overcome it. But sometimes one or both people can say, "I found some solace here." or "You were the victim, not the perpetrator." To share even very difficult things is the only way to find peace about them.

  13. We are such visual creatures, I suppose. Still, to put out there our ultimate naked truths and have people feast as they will… it takes a certain level of bravery.

    Kudos to you for your courage. Kudos to everyone else for being respectful, kind, and gentle with your heart. You have made good blogger friends. 🙂

  14. Yes, readers often assume our writing (poetry in particular) is autobiographical.

    It is not. I try and gently remind my family and friends the same. I am a ferret writer, grabbing bit and pieces of life and stories and making them into something new, something me, but something not me. (Does that make any sense?)

    I like the idea of "putting it out there" — and in so doing, finding a way towards authenticity, embracing the whole ugly 9 yards of life.

  15. Elisabeth, It is indeed something to wonder at. Poetry appears to cross a line. We don't want poetry to be fiction. We seem to hope that at least the poets aren't making it up. I think it has something to do with intimacy. Poetry feels intimate. If it is fictional, then that is not really fair somehow.

    As a poet who is prolific, who can write a poem in less than an hour, and so has written close to a thousand in less than two years, I offer that I cannot have written that many without some of them at least being fictional. I know I am not the only one.

    But the topics, being so intimate, call for intimate response. People take it personal because of the intimacy. They reply personally. They reply to you, to me personally. If your poem was a narrative epic, the confusion probably would not happen.

  16. Thanks, Dave, such a comment from you gives me heart. Someone elsewhere in a comment to you talked of you, Dave, as the poet laureate of the blogosphere. I share that view and so it's heartening to have your warm and considered response to my feeble efforts here.

    Thanks, Steven. One of my daughters tells me from time to time that I must not take my blogging life too seriously, that I do not know for certain that the people who are on the other end of each blog are real, or that they are who they say they are.

    Her cynicism I suspect harks back to her studies in law.

    I have tried to reassure her, that I am not drawn to the fakes, and that no one who makes the effort to work as hard as most of the people with whom I connect within the blogosphere could be anything but genuine. I'm sure there are fakes – all those unwanted troll comments and the occasional money seeking imposition – but by and large we learn quickly how to avoid these.

    And of course we all have multiple aspects to our personalities but that does not mean that in the core of us we are anything but genuine.

    I find your words to be particularly so and with it your comments. Thanks.

    Thanks ,Bonnie. I agree with you and how strange it might seem that what unsettles us also has the power to soothe. It comes from the business of putting words to our experience.

    I also agree that forcing these things does not work. We might want a response, an empathic response at that, but we can never force it.

  17. Kass, There is a fellow by the name of Eviatar Zerubavel who has written a book, called 'The Elephant in the Room'. He is a sociologist by training and writes beautifully about why the tendency for us all to participate in 'conspiracies of silence' and of how hard it is to break through those conspiracies, to speak out against the wrongs that have been perpetuated or even sometimes to say something about what is going on, when it may not be so much wrong as discomforting.

    It's part of my admiration for someone like Jim Murdoch of The Truth about Lies. He calls a spade a spade and sometimes we cringe.

  18. Eryl, I'm with you all the way when it comes to the importance of empathy in a writer, and yet there can be writers who have enormous sensitivity when it comes to their writing and yet in their lives they can almost be the opposite.

    This should not surprise me, of course. Everyone's capacity for empathy has to be selective. Think of the priests who abuse small children and yet can be kind to the poor and destitute. Think of the therapists who can be marvelous with one person in treatment with them and yet appalling in their treatment of another.

    I also agree with you on the confusion between the imaginary and the material, as if, as you say, only the material is real.

    I've written on this topic of fact and fiction before.

    I'll quote myself here: In his novel, 'Empire of the Sun', J G Ballard wrote the story of a small boy interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Although the book was well acclaimed and later made into a film, some critics attacked it. Ballard himself had been interned in a prisoner of war camp with his parents and brother. Why did he not write the actual truth of his experience? Why deny the existence of his parents and brother? In his defence, Ballard argues: he wanted to explore the emotional truth of his experience, the trauma and the loneliness. Despite the presence of his family at that time, he felt completely alone.

    Thanks, Eryl.

  19. Thanks Les, I think that is my aim too, to share an experience, but also to write it in such a way as it allows a reader to go deeper with the experience. I suppose I seek resonance, but I don't want to tell the reader what to think and in that sense I agree with Jim M that it's important to leave something up to the imagination.

    Thanks, Phoenix, for the offer of kudos. I agree it takes courage for all of us bloggers to blog.

    Every time we send out a post or make a comment we expose ourselves to the possibility of ridicule, contempt, derision etc etc. We also run the risk of soliciting false praise.

    In the end I prefer the honest responses and that's the best we can hope for, even when they hurt.

    The people I feel most critical of myself are those who never put themselves out for criticism and yet are the first to cruelly and thoughtlessly criticise those who try.

    It is one of the things that makes me wary of 'anonymous' comments, though I know even some of the anonymous bloggers are genuine and yet I wonder why can't they at least identify themselves to some degree.

    Sorry to go off on a tangent here, but it came to me as I was writing my thanks to you, yourself a brave writer who deserves kudos.

  20. Yes, Terresa, it is hard to distance ourselves and to encourage others to distance themselves somewhat from the content of our writing.

    Writing is symbolic. It is not the thing itself, however much autobiographical. That's why it's best not to take the writing too personally. It's invariably one step removed.

    Thanks Frances. Like you, I love this poem. It's powerful and resonant ad clawas at the heart of me. what more could i want?

    By the way, I don't think there's anything wrong in posting about someone else's blog. I think most people consider it a compliment, as long as you do not claim the content of another's blog as your own if it's not, and you identify the source.

    I love the image of 'garlic at the door'

    Thanks, Christopher. I think I'm inclined to agree with you about my expectations of poetry, that it yields some deeper truth, but I suppose I don't think that it has to be based on 'material', factual autobiographical truth in the absolute sense.

    Again if the words convey some sort of emotional truth, to me that's what counts and that's what helps to make it worthwhile as poetry.

  21. It's funny, to me, that you've been so generous in reading my blog, accepting what I say with support and seemingly without questioning my reasons for saying it….indiscrete as I often am
    and then you are worried about a child abuse poem on your blog…
    aren't we humans odd?

  22. I like pepper. Fresh and plentiful.

    I like pushing peoples imaginations, senses, neural networks and emotions.

    I like Atwood's assessment of the duality of writing: the writer and the writing. But, for me, I always feel like triplets: writer, writing, editor.

  23. This was a hard read … I have been close to a perpetrator and his victim … many years ago, but never quite erased from my psyche. A hard read ~ but a good read.

  24. Thanks, Melissa. I agree, we humans are odd – a mix of inconsistencies. what I can do for you by way of encouragement is not necessarily something I can do for myself, however hard I might try.

    Yes, Ronda, I forgot about that editor part, the one hopefully who exists in all of us and pushes us to refine our work.

    Maybe it's the editor who mediates the writer and the writing, after the event that is. You have to keep your editor in check while you're actually writing, I believe but thereafter the writer takes over.

    Thanks, Helen. I hope leaving a comment wasn't so hard, given the nature of the read.

    I think often times it is hard to respond and it's good for the writer when we can push through that difficulty and at least find something to say.

    So I'm grateful to you, Helen, for the effort and pleased to meet you here.

  25. you're fortunate to have a wide variety of dinner guests – i'd love for them to make a studio visit some time – but again, it may not be the 'right' cuisine …
    fact or fiction, prose or poetry; people enjoy a good story – it's nurturing …
    i'm not sure the same holds true for contemporary art, jazz, or experimental music …
    even though we all belong to the same world of archetypes and patternization, new art becomes as challenging to our sensibilities as a new dish from a different culture …
    i think this largely has to do with the fact that we bracket external familiarities for simplification, whereas language permeates our reason daily – becoming the quickest route to the soul …
    but we have to at least wonder why so many people have dedicated their lives to the areas of abstraction over the past 100 years +; have suffered poverty, indignity, and presumption for the advancement of this form if it wasn't worthy of digestion …
    "Alone With Him" sent chills down my spine – all the right ingredients in proper proportion to elicit the desired results …

  26. Thanks, Paul, for your comment here.

    I tend to be as gregarious on line as I am in my 'real' life and it gets me into trouble sometimes. I'm sure it affects people's responsiveness. It's not just a feature of the quality of my work. Nor is the absence of a crowd of guests at your blog dinner an indication of the quality of your work. You know that, I hope.

    I agree with you that people find it easier to respond to words.

    It takes a mature, sophisticated and I'd say sensitive – in the positive sense of the word – palate to appreciate abstraction in all its forms.

  27. Hi Elisabeth,I just came to say good day to you and have a wonderful weekend,and I love your new profile photo,I just love it! :O)

    Bye,bye Aleksandra

  28. Dear Elisabeth, the often uncontrollable and uncontrolled forces of sexual energy can be very scary. Child abuse is a terrible example.
    One of the unforgettable and most powerful novels I have read in my life: "Fall on your knees" by Marie MacDonald is also about this.
    I strongly recommend it to you and everybody.

  29. What often happens is that people tend to think poetry is autobiographical, when so often it need not be.

    On some sensitive topics, I use the first person, because very strong emotions are better articulated from within. I always clarify that it is fictional, but still get comments from a few people who think it actually happened to me.

  30. Thanks, Aleks, I'm glad you like my new profile. There's quite a story behind it, too and complicated long to tell here.

    I have not yet read the book you recommend, Davide, but I shall check it out. Any recommendation from you would have to be worthwhile. Thanks.

    It's good to meet you here, Reya of Not enough hours. I posted earlier on the topic of autobiographical poetry.

    My blog friend Jim Murdoch of the Truth about Lies has much to say on the topic. You can check him/it out at:

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