Writers Beware

I have been thinking lately about the contract between readers and writers – if such a thing exists – and the ways in which it is upheld by different writers and readers, whether it is clear cut, whether it is sacrosanct, whether it can be broken and what happens when it is.

Behind the scenes there are those who accuse me of violating some unspoken contract with my readers. In my previous post for instance. I began with a few general thoughts on the nature of the term autobiographical and its contrast with the confessional. Then I launched into an example of the autobiographical, first with my experience of going to confession as a child, and my struggle to understand the nature of sin. Then I outlined what some might consider a traumatic experience that I wound up taking to confession.

My adult self looks back and sees the incident as potentially traumatic but my memory of the event is one of bemusement. It is tricky because I cannot remember the events from my childhood as accurately as I might like. I have written about these experiences before and never once have I felt satisfied with my writing. Somehow the telling of this story defies me.

Could this be one reason why it slipped into my previous post the way it did last week, unbidden? I had not intended to include it in the post when I first began my argument about autobiography and confession.

It popped into my mind as I wrote, in the way thoughts often do. I did not plan for it. It lodged itself there and it seems to me that it had a right to be there as it had insisted itself upon me.

Then I wrote the post. I edited for typos and grammar before finally posting it on line. I had thought about it over the course of the afternoon on the day in which I wrote it and then I posted it.

Is this wrong? Should I have sat with it longer? Should I have left out the disturbing vignette. If I had sat with it longer would certain of my readers then not be offended as I understand some have been, that I have perhaps breached the writer’s contract with my reader, that I have foisted an experience onto them into their minds that they did not invite, and that they did not welcome?

Philippe LeJeune wrote about the autobiographical pact years ago. He argued that in autobiography the writer whose name appears on the cover of the book must be the same person whose life is described in the text and that the account of the life so described must be basically truthful.

There have been countless examples wherein writers have played around with this notion before and since. Some have led to significant reprisals for the author. But the autobiographical pact so called is no longer held to be gospel.

Fiction writers also enter unspoken pacts with their readers. This might in some ways account for the obsession we have in seeking to classify a book’s genre before it hits the bookshelves. This desire to identify genre may not simply be in order to place the book into its correct category in the library and book shop, it may be because people in the main like to have some degree of confidence in what they imagine they will encounter along the way.

Taken in its extreme, we come to formulaic writing, the likes of Mills and Boon where we can know before hand how the book will end without reading the last page to check it out.

Even as an autobiographer I prefer not to know where my writing will take me. I prefer to be surprised at what will come up for me. But in the process of surprising myself I might sometimes surprise my readers even more.

Is this because, although the thoughts that rise to the surface of my mind can sometimes surprise me, they are thoughts that have rested within me and although I may not have been consciously aware of them, they are still my thoughts. Others who later read about them might well be troubled by the arrival of such thoughts when they had least expected them.

To me the element of surprise is important in performances of all kinds, in art, in theatre, and in writing.

But how can I talk? I make unspoken demands on other writers, too.

Years ago I read A S Byatt’s Still Life. I won’t outline the story other than to say there is one central character in it, Stephanie Potter whose unfolding life I followed with pleasure. Shortly after the birth of her first baby, Stephanie described in poignant detail her baby’s accidental scratch as ‘the first wound on new skin’.

Perhaps Byatt here was attempting to warn her readers.

At the beginning of a chapter, three quarters of the way through the book, in the most glorious writing, Byatt kills Stephanie off.

I read this section over and over. I refused to believe it at first. Byatt must have had it wrong. I howled and howled. How could she have done it? How could she have killed off one of her main characters?

I was in analysis at the time and talked it over with my analyst who interpreted what now seems predictable to me, a reliving of my devastation as a twenty-one month old child at what must have felt like the loss of my beloved mother when my younger sister was born.

At the time of reading Still Life I considered Byatt had broken an unspoken writer’s pact. But I realise now, she had made no such pact with me, nor with anyone. The pact was of my making, and it was one sided.

I am a creature of the happy ending. I want happy endings. I know they do not exist. The only thing that exists for all of us in the end is death. I know this, but as Salman Akhtar said at a conference I attended yesterday, we all have to realize that ‘not one of us can get out of this life alive’.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to end this discussion in the knowledge that I cannot get out of writing and being read in tact and alive. There will always be a part of me as a writer that is challenged by readers disappointed in my take on things, as if I have killed off one of their beloved beliefs. I have transgressed the reader/writer’s pact.

And so I end by saying: Writers beware. It is a dangerous and demanding world out there.

72 thoughts on “Writers Beware”

  1. Was your mother rather ham-fisted in dropping you for the new baby, Elisabeth?
    Many children have the experience of changing ranks as the offspring grow: but, to "lose" your mother by this, is surely an extreme. My own "spoilt" son often egged me on to pay more attention to my beloved baby girl when she fussed or fretted.
    Otoh, my own mother was notorious for totally abandoning those present, and focussing only on the newcomer.
    When one becomes absorbed in a film or book, and is bereft at some tragedy, cannot that then just be ascribed to the skill of the author?
    It was sad. One was devastated. Why? Because it was sad, and one is human.

  2. Brilliant piece of writing— Elisabeth

    I read somewhere recently "if you are not getting someone angry with you for what you are writing sometimes then you not saying much" well it is not an exact quote but the essence of the quote….


  3. Well written, I enjoyed it thoroughly and I agreed with everything you said.

    Or at least, everything I was able to grasp. I'm on 5 hours sleep here, and a lot of it required more thinking than I was able to output.

    It's funny though, the pact we have with people who don't even know the pact exists. It's like that episode of Seinfeld where George thinks he and Jerry had a pact to get married. Not to each other of course.

    Anyway, I remember I wrote a post once, for my entertainment, in which I dropped the F-Bomb 93 times. I worried before I posted it, because I rarely swear in my posts (if at all) and I wondered if it would offend some readers who, through a pattern of reading by blogs over a long time, accept and appreciate that swearing just isn't what my blog is about.

    Luckily for me, nobody was offended and most of them got the "joke"

  4. In order to think at all, we need to conceptualize; but, if we're to be honest, the boxes within which we house our conceptions have to be very permeable.

    I find it hard to imagine an autobiography that isn't in some way a confession, or a confession that isn't in someway autobiographical, even if the essence of each is very different.

    A wonderfully thought-provoking post Elisabeth.

  5. I think if writers tried to write to please all their readers their work would become very sterile and stilted. So sometimes a reader is shocked – at least the writer has made an impact. Personally, writing that shocks, bores, repels me means that I don't read that author any more. Isn't that how it always works? – or am I being too simplistic again 😉

  6. hi elisabeth – this very thoughtful post has got me thinking – so thankyou!! i love surprise but i'll qualify that by adding, a surprise that has insight, you know, the deep universal but not homogenized insight that allows for the reader to dive beneath the surface of their own experiencing and truly engage with what they are. steven

  7. this post mede me remember about the "revenge of the readers " . talking bout me , there are so many wirters that made me feel betrayed and i never touched their books anymore… dead , alive witers .
    i believe that there is that moment when you are reading the book and realise very well if it is going to feed you with some reall and authentic experience or ont .
    i use to let the fakes vanish on the shelves …
    i develop a too personal relationship with the writer and don't forgive if he , she , tryis to ….
    you got .

  8. Don't know; I just do not know! It is not something I've ever thought about in the way you've put it Elisabeth.

    I write letters to friends more than anything else. I try to make sure that I do not offend in any way. But writing a book, or a play? Very different of course. I just don't know if there's some sort of 'contract' or 'pact' twixt writer/reader. And I don't think anybody knows …

  9. Hey, Elisabeth, brilliant post.

    When you started off the article with, "I have been thinking lately about the contract between readers and writers…" I was surprised, because I've been thinking about this myself.

    My belief is that if there is a physical form of a contract, it is the book that the reader buys or the blog that the reader invests time into.

    As for the agreement between the writer and the reader, the reader gives the writer the time and the effort to delve into the story and the writer provides the entertainment for that reader.

    Sometimes we are disappointed that something happened, because we didn't expect the story to take that turn, but the writer did it and the reader can't change it.

    It has been done.
    It has been written.
    It has been the character's fate to die just like it is our fate to die.

    The writer put much thought about what to do with that character and her death, so the reader shouldn't be disappointed. When a character is lost, it's like losing a best friend in life, because the reader knew everything about the character. The reader invested time into that character and doesn't want all that time to be for waste.

    But was it?

    Didn't you feel anything when the character died? You said that you felt disappointment.

    That's what the author is trying to do, it's his job to make you care, make you feel, but I shouldn't be the one telling you this, because you already know, being a writer yourself. The whole purpose of the disappointment, the whole purpose of this contract, is for the entertainment and the journey.

    As for your last thought, "Writers beware. It is a dangerous and demanding world out there." You're are very right! The world is a dark place at times. When critics bash writers and other artists for creating scenarios that aren't favored with the public, I know from experience, as well. My readers would always comment, "Why? Why did you kill him/her off? He/She was important!" I just tell them that it had to be done. It was his/her time and some people give up on the book or story, because their favorite character died. However, there are some who don't give up, those readers who are in it for the long run and know that a book is a mimic for life in the real world. Those are the priceless readers that I trust. Those are my beta readers, who know that everything has a reason, even death.

    Anyway, enough of my rambling. Write on, Elisabeth! Your post was awesome and don't change a thing because it doesn't agree with a single person or a thousand people. It is YOUR thought that counts! And the fact that you receive all those people's comments about something they didn't like, that is good. As Mr. Martin once told me and I'm just paraphrasing right now, "It is better to get a negative comment than no comments at all."

  10. I can't imagine the urge to please all the readers or being upset that some of yours didn't like that vignette which I thought was so powerful. This anecdote is coarse, but it's always served me well. It happened after I'd taken my photographs to an editor who dismissed me rather quickly (I have to say that others had been interested in my work which was more surprising, actually) and I telephoned a friend for comfort and he said, "You can't take your penis to a nun and expect her to admire it" meaning that there will always be folks in your 'audience' who are not open to the type of work you are doing. That's just it.
    I think your contract is with yourself… The demands come when you are trying to get work published, that's where the writer will suffer most by not having pleased those folks and will have most trouble finding one that she pleases.
    But, dear heart, I'm just not as careful as you are.
    Thank you for the post!

  11. I feel that i don't have a word in a writer's discussion, especially in English.

    But if you don't mind me saying, I think a writer, like all kind of artists, should create without ever wondering what will the public think, in that instance the readers…

    I think you should write whatever you want to write even if some are disturbed.

  12. Feel free to be as provcative and disturbing as you please, and long as it's not disturbing for distubing's sake, in which case it becomes mere exploitation. I don't believe what you wrote was mere exploitation.

    I once read a review of a movie in which the critic wrote that once the original concept starts getting away from you, you have to decide whether to take that original concept out back and put it out of it's misery. I wasn't at all offended by your anecdote, but once your introduced it, it was hard for me to be as interested in the original concept, the nature of confession. Maybe if you had just written the anecdote first in a seperate post, and, the very next time out, when you could be reasonably sure you still had the bunch of readers, pontificate about the nature of confession. But it's a small thing. You're a suburb writer.

  13. I have been reading your recent posts with great interest. They have gotten me to thinking, and now I am working on an idea about a post about what your posts have brought to my mind.

  14. I went to the premier of a new Requiem today at the Unitarian Church. My friend and I agreed we had heard much of the musical style and progressions before. There were few surprises.

    I look for an unusual approach, some fresh new direction when I open myself up to any of the arts. I have been jolted and opened by your writing. Breaking rules, contracts and expectations is the stuff of revolutionary writing.

    You rock my artistic world.

  15. I'm not sure why anyone would be offended at what you wrote. After all, you were writing about yourself, not them. If you were brave enough to put yourself out there, support not punishment would be in order.

  16. i write to please myself – if some readers don't like it, they'll stop reading – and some others will start reading

    i remember my total shock when stephanie died in 'still life' – it seemed the wrong thing to do, but as you say, that's because we readers have become so used to the 'hero's journey' that we resent any deviation from it

    have you read 'love in the time of cholera' by gabriel garcia marquez? he breaks a cardinal writing rule by killing off a main character in the first chapter!

    but that's what makes writers such as marquez and byatt great …

  17. Isn't the writer writing first for him/herself, whether autobiography or fiction? I feel there are only two parts to the "contract": to be truthful [fiction, too, is truthful in its intent to portray life as the writer understands it] and secondly not to bore the reader — which is where surprise is important. The surprise must come from the deep truth of the material. Reality is far from predictable and people [real or fictional] are complex. Beyond these considerations, both as a writer and as a reader, I have no other "compact". I think a number of people have said this in their own words already in the above remarks.

  18. Your description of the 'pact' that we, as readers, expect that the author has made with us -and just us in the privacy of our own reading bubble- is very well observed, Elisabeth and explains what I've been trying my damndest not to do, both as reader and writer.

    Sometimes I think that my blog has become safe and a sanitised version of myself, but when I mentioned depression a few months ago I was more surprised by the comments I received. Not all of them were from the regulars, but some were from lurkers or merely people who'd stumbled onto the site.

    Dad too, puts me in my place re the blog writing. "Nah, I can't read it that often," he admitted last year, "Because you swear more than I'd like." ME? Then I remember that Dad is/was an utter stickler for no obscenities of any kind. The lingering effects of a lifetime of high school teaching I suspect.

    ….oh dear, see what I've done there? Like your previous post, I've been taken on an entirely different path! Not that I'd dare belittle what you wrote there, Elisabeth, but a comments field sort of encourages free form thinking and absolutely no editing, doesn't it?

  19. I feel schizophrenic at times, torn between the voices in my head saying, "Write what you want, exactly how you feel, despite what anyone expects VS my editing/censoring self.

    I write better when I write exactly how I feel. Even though it ruffles feathers, surprises people, makes them uncomfortable. I like writing that moves me to another place emotionally, that makes me uncomfortable. Because when I'm uncomfortable, that's when I learn the best.

    Excellent post, Elisabeth.

  20. Powerful post. And you deserve a long answer. Precisely because last week I started to work on a post for my Sunday columns on the autobiography vs memoir issue.

    I think that we're able to recall many events in our life in a very exact manner. We can describe pretty much the same way as they happened. But others, and especially the uncomfortable ones, are blurred by the lines of fiction and reality. I guess it's a defense mechanism we have innately. Then there's the other unpredictable element of one of your relatives reading a particular column and not agreeing with what you disclosed. In-fighting ensues.

    I do heed your call to beware.

    Many thanks for such an honest post.

    Greetings from London.

  21. I think joanny speaks a valuable truth. Either your writing has point and meaning or it's bland an d no one gets upset. Sometimes in confessional writing you reveal more than you know.

  22. No Frances, my mother was not such a clumsy soul, but there were nine of us living and two dead, and I was sixth in line.

    I don't imagine there was much time for her to reflect on my sensitivities or your mother about yours by the sound of things.

    It all depends on your perspective.

    There are books devoted to these sensitivities.

    It relates to the stuff of being human, but there are layers to experience that we can ride over slipshod and others that we can ponder on.

    Thanks, Frances.

  23. Well that's a comforting thought, Joanny – the requirement to get someone angry as an indicator that you have something worthwhile to say.

    I seem to do it a lot, even when I'm not trying. And sometimes I am, but not here, not on my blog.

    Here I try to tread warily, but even then I sometimes stuff up.

    Thanks again, Joanny

  24. You got it, Scoman: 'the pact we have with people who don't even know the pact exists'.

    It is treacherous in the blogosphere, on line generally. How easy it is for us to misread one another, or to be misread. That's why we have all these smiley faces.

    The faces don't do it for me. I prefer words, but words are fallible and subject to multiple interpretations.

    I'm glad people got the joke on our F-bomb post. As you say, it's easy to misjudge on the basis of very little information and get it wrong.

    Thanks again, Scoman.

  25. I don’t think any contract exists between readers and writers. Both may have expectations – and that leaves them open to disappointment – but in no way can one or the other say that they have been let down. A reader may pick up a book and expect to be entertained; a writer may produce a text that needs time taken over it: the odds are that these two will be incompatible. The only contract that can possibly exist is that a writer promises to try and communicate in words and a reader promises to try to read them. That is it.

    This issue of self-censorship is a touchy one. Considering one’s audience is one thing, if one has a specific audience, but one has to ask where one draws the line. Your language is moderate and so I would imagine anyone would be able to access your site, young or old. Does that mean you should steer away from certain subjects because they would upset children or the religious? Where does your responsibility end as a writer and theirs begin as readers? If readers don’t like what they’re reading they can put the text down in exactly the same way they can switch the channel on their TVs: no one is making them read this.

    Sitting on any text is a good idea in my opinion. I never post anything right away. There are arguments both for and against that. I’m not fond or raw writing but one could easily say that my own writing lacks immediacy, that it’s too considered. But once it’s up it’s up. I have upset people with what I’ve written but that’s a chance that they and I take.

    Every time you click on any link on the Internet you risk being upset or offended. I ran across a video clip once some ten years ago of a woman being shot in the head. Since I was only searching videos there was no text to accompany it and there was no way to anticipate what I was going to see or unsee it afterwards. I have no idea if it was real. It looked real but then everything we watch in films looks real. It might have been a clip for a film or an example of a special effect. I don’t believe it was. It was very short, a few seconds: there was a close-up of a frightened woman on the screen, a hand holding a gun appeared on the right-hand side of the screen and shot her in the head. I did not watch it a second time and I’ve tried not to relive the experience. I’m actually fairly philosophical about it. I could walk in the street and witness an accident. It’s not as if I go and stand there hoping for a car crash or anything.

    I remember giving an early draft of Living with the Truth to the girl who worked next to me. Her response when she realised what I was going to do to Jonathan at the end – I will never forget it – was, and I quote, “How dare you…” She thought what I did was very unfair. It really upset her. She got the point. Life is unfair. I think what Byatt did was clever – and brave – and it’s a mark of the quality of her as a writer that she didn’t hang onto a good character longer than needed. Reading about death (or watching death on a screen) is rehearsing. Sometimes it’s minor players that die (a girl I went to school with committed suicide when she was about seventeen), sometimes it’s major players (my mum and dad). Life does not have a plot and the best novels shouldn’t feel like they do even if they do. Characters should be allowed to be uncharacteristic and things should happen at inconvenient times.

    Everyone is looking for the perfect reader, the one who reads everything they write and gets it. They’re thin on the ground and the first one I found I married so I’d know where to find her when I needed her. And yet I never write with her in mind. Never. That’s not how it works. I write and hope she likes. Invariably she does. Anything, or to be more precise, anyone else is a bonus.

  26. I like the idea of 'permeable' boxes in which to house our conceptions, Barry, our conceptions and our pre-conceptions.

    I agree that some autobiography has a 'confessional' ring, but it need not be entirely so.

    When you write your blog, which is after all autobiography, do you feel you are confessing, Barry?

    You don't sound that way to me. Occasionally you might 'admit' to a troublesome thought or deed, but it does not strike me as 'confessional', but then again I'm back to the religious meaning of the term, and as others have pointed out the verb 'to confess' also has a secular meaning.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness here, Barry.

  27. You are far from simplistic, Janice. I agree we tend to read writers who do not upset us too much, or bore us, or otherwise disgust us. We tend to read writers who intrigue us, even if they unsettle is.

    I read and I write and so my sympathies lie on both sides of the fence, but if something troubles me too much, unless I am obliged to read it for academic purposes, I tend to leave it alone.

    There's enough writing in this world that thrills, excites or generally pleases me to leave the vastly distressing or offensive stuff – to me at least – alone.

    Thanks, Janice.

  28. I agree with you Steven about the layering in writing that is necessary for readers to have a chance to get beneath the superficial and to bring their own perspective into another's work.

    The element of surprise is but one aspect of that, as you would know. You surprise us everyday on your blog with your beautiful words and images.

    Thanks, Steven.

  29. Thanks, Caio. I can imagine that you would expect a great deal of your writers.

    You are so wonderfully self critical in your own work, you expect nothing less than honesty from yourself.

    I can imagine that you would not tolerate what you call fake from your writers.

    How lovely to see that you read my blog, an artist like you. I'm honoured.

    Thanks again, Caio

  30. Hi Philip, I agree with you.

    I don't know about this idea of a pact between writer and reader as a statement of fact, as gospel.

    I think it's a notion, an unspoken something that seems to exist but it does not get spelled out clearly, except occasionally you hear of readers who complain that the writer has tricked them into believing that they were going to get something that they did not get and the reader feels betrayed.

    It's not so different from what happens in relationships is it? And in life generally?

    Sometimes I can even feel tricked by the weather. Like now. It's raining. I want the rain. We've had such a long drought but I didn't realise it would rain today and all day long.

    Otherwise I would not have left my laundry basket outside. I would not have left my wicker laundry basket with socks drying around its rim outside in the rain, would I?

    Thanks, Philip.

  31. Hi Vachte

    So you've been thinking about this issue too. How wonderful.

    It's interesting what you say about the physical aspects of the initial contract between writer and reader – the book, the blog, the time, the effort to read and presumably to write.

    I wonder whether a writer who takes ten years to write a book feels differently about her reader's criticisms compared with a writer who takes only six months to produce her book.

    As for the immutability of what has been written, what about those books that offer alternative endings?

    Some people love them, others hate them. Some want one possible outcome only, others are happy with alternatives.

    It's an interesting notion that we write for entertainment and to take others on a journey. I suspect there are other reasons as well.

    I'm glad you have some 'beta' readers, Vachte, those who will go with you on your journey wherever you take them and yes they are valuable readers indeed.

    Thank you for your thoughts here, Vachte. I appreciate your response, so dense and well considered.

  32. Thanks for that wonderful aphorism, Melissa. I'll keep it with me.

    It helps to be reminded yet again of context. The trouble with the blogosphere is that the context is broad – you have your nuns and your libertines, your radicals and your conservatives, and you oftentimes don't know who is who and which is which.

    I agree that the response post publication is tough, but it's far more immediate in the blogosphere, which I understand is a sort of publication – self publication – and that can be worse in some ways. Less time to absorb the impact.

    Thanks again, Melissa.

  33. Thank you for your words of encouragement, Elisabelle.

    You are not the first person who believes that we should be free to write as we need to write.

    I agree with you, but there are always consequences to what we write and therefore we need to be wary about writing 'just anything'.

    I'm sure you, too, are careful about the photographs you publish on your blog.

    Sometimes I imagine you have to censor yourself, but hopefully not too much.

    Thanks again, Elisabelle.

  34. I'm glad you did not think that my writing was mere exploitation, Kirk.

    I am not a logical writer in the sense that I tend not to follow a straight path from a to z, I meander along the way.

    Some people find this frustrating. I'm glad you persevered long enough to respond to my efforts.

    You can understand why I sometimes panic about managing to produce a linear thesis, one that recreates some sort of clear argument. I'm not sure I can do it.

    Thanks, Kirk

  35. Thanks, Mike. I look forward to reading your post based on the thoughts evoked by mine.

    This is one of the joys of the blogosphere, the way we fire off one another.

    Happy writing.

  36. The notion of 'revolutionary' writing is a bit of a leap for me, Kass but I'm glad that my writing has opened up some ideas for you, as your writing has opened up poetic inspiration for me.

    Thanks, Kass.

  37. Maggie, it's clear to me from your superb writing that you are one who can dispense with all thoughts of her readership.

    You write so exquisitely in a brave and unaffected way.

    I find that when I settle down to write for my blog, you guys are always there.

    If i can get my bloggers out of my mind, I can write a tad less self consciously.

    Thanks, Maggie

  38. I often wonder about this issue too, Ronda.

    I write about myself more often than not and yet there are times when complete strangers seem to feel that I have written about them.

    I suspect it has to do with the extent to which autobiographical writing can sometimes hit on raw nerves.

    Thanks, Ronda. I'm glad my post didn't hit on any nerves for you.

  39. Gretta, I'm glad you shared the same shock when Stephanie died.

    I know what you mean about readers insisting that the hero's journey follow a predictable trajectory and then become upset when the writer veers off course.

    I've yet to read Marquez, but I must, one day, soon, when I can clear some space from all the other things I must read. I wish I had room for two lives.

    It's all this blogging you know…

    Thanks, Gretta.

  40. Hey June, the contract to be truthful is a hairy one , too, June.

    I've read so much lately on the theory of autobiography that I can see how hard it is for writers to stick with this one, especially when the truth is such a wobbly construct, unless of course you mean something more like 'truthfulness', which is perhaps a little more fluid.

    Thanks, June

  41. It is hard to write about ourselves freely in the blogsphere, Kath. Our versions tend to become 'sanitised', as you say.

    The idea of my father reading my blog – not that he could, he's been dead now some 28 years – sends shock waves through me.

    But then there are fathers and there are fathers and yours is obviously one who can be trusted despite his reservations about swearing.

    I don't have a problem with people responding to my posts with comment/posts of their own, in fact I love it.

    This is the stuff of conversations, as I've said before.

    We fire off one another. And therein lies the element of surprise.

    Thanks, Kath.

  42. One of my writing mentors told us to write what makes us sweat, what makes us uncomfortable.

    I agree with you therefore, Terresa – write into our discomfort.

    This is generally the stuff of strong writing however much it might also upset our readers. It's the stuff that probably needs to be said.

    You do it very well in your own writing, Terresa.


  43. I do not actually believe in a contract between writers and readers – let me tell you why.

    As soon as a writer writes for her readers she is doomed. She must write for herself. A painter does not paint for others; she paints for herself. A molder does not mold clay for others; it is for herself.

    Each artist must take absolute responsibility to only focus on pleasing one person: themselves.

    I know this sounds selfish but this is why artists get called selfish. We cannot create to please others or gauge how well we are doing by the reactions of those around us – otherwise we cease to become artists and instead we find ourselves entertainers, subject to the whim of the crowd, dumbing down art for shtick.

  44. Dear Elisabeth, hopefully you are fine. As you may have already noticed the "barefoot navigation" isn't anymore.
    After reading the first sentence of this entry, it became difficult to continue, as due to a reader the site had to be closed. Words like jealousy and anger are only a few to mention.
    This now the second time, don't know whether there's enough might left inside of me, to start all over again and again.
    Still trying to catch some breath, as it indeed did hurt more than I thought, I'd like to wish you a wonderful Tuesday.

    daily athens

  45. Yes, it's precisely because I knew how many children she had to mother, and the huge amount of domestic duties she must have had, that I was surprised at your strong reaction of "devastation", and the feeling that you had "lost" your mother when one more child arrived.
    I hope that I don't sound unsympathetic: I am interested.

    And, it also feeds into my own agenda, in that I am dubious about the emotional effect of putting children into childcare so early, as they do now: but, it is an accepted "good".
    One of the truest and most perceptive comments about children that I ever read, was by L.M.Montgomery, who said something like: "By the time that Marigold was 5 years old, she had experienced all the emotions that she would feel during her adult life." Yes, love, bliss, envy, jealousy, hatred, fear, dread, even nostalgia – I do think that small children feel these, but can seldom articulate them. And, I think that that may actually explain your reaction, and my puzzlement. Maybe?

  46. I agree with you Phoenix, writers need to write for themselves, otherwise the writing is dead in the water, but there is still pressure after the event from some readers, at least that's how I have experienced it from some readers who cannot understand why I might write as I do, why I include or omit certain events or ideas or experiences from a piece of writing.

    The skill of writing lies in selection as much as in the actual words used and it can be tricky satisfying certain readers.

    But I agree with you again, Phoenix, we cannot put the satisfaction of our readers as central unless we want to tie ourselves into a strait jacket.

    Thanks, Phoenix.

  47. tell you what- i wish i had thought about it a bit longer before i told certain people in my private life that i have a blog. though it's getting rare, still the snide comment or weird misunderstanding that gets brought to my attention… and i don't think i'm necessarily laying it all out on the table on my blog either. but even though few negative comments made me feel like maybe i'd done something wrong. maybe i'd said something i shouldn't have. maybe maybe maybe. but then i remembered that every artist has an audience. the audience might be small and it most likely won't have many family members in it. way too close for comfort. and i guess, in certain ways, the blogsoshere begins to mimick family dynamics after awhile amongst us loyal followers/writers. still, i have never been upset by what a person chooses to share on their blog. if anything, i get mad at myself for not having reached that level of bravery in my own posts.

    but back to the subject of writing in general- if a story (fictional or autobiographical) is well-written (and that means something different to everyone) than it can *be* about anything and still be enjoyed. a perfect example is elfrieda jelinik. there are absolutly horrific scenes in her novels but she is such a brilliant writer that i have never turned away, never felt like i've been wronged, never felt like she owed me anything- i sat amazed at how masterful she is. but she has her detractors too. it's impossible to please everbody. and so, one of your last thoughts- that you will not be able to get out of writing alive. yes. even if you never shared a word of it with anybody, it'd be that way. it's the nature of the thing. and regardless if anyone *likes* the subject matter you handle, i think it's damn apparent that you care about writing, not only as a form, but as a life's work.

    it's funny (in an angering way)that the notion of integrety is championed by pretty much everyone on the planet… until a passionate person, an artist, sticks to their guns on something. then the wolves come out, circling and snarling. "oh yes, you can be a person of passion and integrity, except when it offends me."

    when i come here, i am always refreshed. i glean some of your magnificent courage and i am always thankful for it.

  48. Oh dear Robert, you have been gagged. Barefoot Navigation is no more.

    A reader forced you to close down the site. How can that be? Readers are not the police, but sometimes, depending on who they are and their connection to us, they can behave that way.

    I know how much it hurts. A few months ago I thought I would stop my blog altogether because I had upset a few people, in this instance people I love.

    I do not mind upsetting people who mean little to me, but when we care about certain people's opinions and they object to us putting ours on line, it becomes almost impossible.

    I take it Daily Athens is your blogsite now. I shall visit you there unless you resurrect Barefoot Navigation a third time.

    Why not? Don't be forced to give up on something that matters to you. Blog as you see fit.

  49. Thanks, Cuban. I'm looking forward to reading your autobiography vs memoir post.

    I often puzzle over the distinction between these two words. we tend to use them as though they are synonymous and I'm not sure they are.

    As for the business of memory, I have some memories that I am certain of and others that seem hazy.

    Whenever I write from memory, I'm aware of a tendency to fill gaps with details from other memories,a sort of concertina effect. Events get condensed over time.

    I'm all for the notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but there is a thing called 'truthfulness' and truthfulness can be seen differently even by people sharing the same experience.

    We need to make room for multiple perspectives.

    Thanks again, Cuban.

  50. That's something I enjoy as a rule Dave, the extent to which someone might see something in my writing that I had not seen.

    But the something they see has to make some sort of sense to me, otherwise it feels as if it's a feature of their imagination more than of mine.

    I've told the story elsewhere how Elizabeth Jolley, Australian writer once gave a talk and one audience member complained about the depiction of lesbians in one of her books.

    Jolley was stunned. Not that she was against lesbians, but she did not believe that any of her books refereed to lesbians or lesbianism in any way.
    'What about the rumpled white sheets on the bed in so and so's room, just after she'd been talking to that other woman,' the audience member said.

    The implication as this woman had read it seems were largely of her own making.

    No one else, as far as Jolley knew, had conceived of the scene in this way, least of all Jolley herself.

    And so it seems readers can get things wrong, and can exaggerate meanings just as can writers.

    Thanks, Dave.

  51. Thanks for your comment here, Jim. You are so wonderfully articulate.

    I agree that the notion of contract might seem too harsh and the idea of expectations on the part of both readers and writers is much gentler.

    In fact, I had a fantasy conversation with one of my detractors recently and I heard myself saying to my imagined reader, who had complained bitterly about what I had written, 'It's a piece of writing, for God's sake. It's not a piece of legislation.'

    The legal connotations of the word 'contract' makes it so much more ominous.

    I once wrote a letter to one of my writer heroes, Drusilla Modjeska. Most likely you would not have heard of her, but she's one of Australia's famed literary writers. After she had published her story of her mother, Poppy, I wrote to Drusilla about my anxieties in writing a book that involved details of my own family.

    She wrote back:
    '…ultimately [with] books like that, one just has to leap to it – and I suspect the character traits involved are not the best. A certain ruthlessness and dealing with it later. There’s always flack to mop up after a book that has any personal component and all I can say from my experience is that a) no-one actually dies, including yourself and b) people’s reactions keep changing, and they forget what they once were, so it’s very varied and those who are furious at first can come round, and vice versa. So my advice is just do it – the doing of it isn’t the problem – but you need a large chin for afterward. No task for the squeamish.'

    I have to remind myself of these words from time to time, especially as I do not have the benefit of the same accepting reader as you have in your Carrie.

    I tend not to offer my writing to family to read, immediate family that is, until well after publication and I rarely run my writing past my extended family. It's far too dangerous.

    Thanks again, Jim

  52. Thanks again Frances.

    In the 1950s a couple called James and Joyce Roberston made a series of films about the experience of small children under the age of three in brief separation from their parents, generally a separation required because the mother needed to go into hospital to have the next baby and the father had to go to work each day.

    This was in England when mothers routinely went to hospital for ten days or so. The children those who lacked the benefit of extended family, were left in residential day care. Often they did not see their mothers for ten days at a stretch, when prior to this they had not left her side ever.

    There is one particular Robertson film about an eighteen month old boy named John.

    He starts off okay in the nursery when he finds himself left there suddenly in the middle of the night.

    Over the course of the next ten days we witness John gradually disintegrate in face of his mother's absence. The nurses in charge change shifts regularly and john is unable to form a substitute attachment to any of them. His father visits briefly on one or two evenings and we see John indicate by picking up his shoes that he wants to go home now but his father again leaves without him.

    Gradually John stops eating, stops interacting with caregivers, and cries all the time.

    By the end he is in despair, no more tears he just lies like a broken doll on the floor atop a huge teddy bear in a corner of the nursery. He has seemingly given up and when his mother comes finally to take him home, he looks at her but refuses to go to her.

    A nurse picks John up to take him to his mother and when the camera pans in on his face, the expression in his eyes is one of such…'hatred'… is the only word I can find. If looks could kill.

    This is the most opowerful film I have witnessed about the effects of such separation.

    When James and Joyce Robertson began their research into the experience of such young children in brief separation during the 1950s there was a huge outcry, mainly from professionals and those involved in childcare.

    How could they have let these little children suffer so? Why did they not step in and intervene, put a stop to the pain they were witnessing?

    The Robertons in their defence made the point that had they intervened nothing would have been done to change the system.

    These days parents tend to be far more sensitive in the main to the need to leave their children in such prolonged institutional child care.

    In our day, they were less aware, and in many instances they had no choice.

    Sorry for the long post. I can give you more details if you're intersted. I've written about this at length.

    Thanks again, Frances.

  53. I agree, Angela the blogosphere can sometimes seem to mimic family dynamics, as much for what we bring to it as for what our readers bring.

    For instance, I am quick to experience all audiences, in the real world and the virtual as being filled with my various sisters and brothers. It's most disconcerting.

    I will not tell any of my family of origin about my blog. It's bad enough that my immediate family know .

    And I also agree with you, Angela that it's sad and angry making that people – who don't stick their necks out and try to write themselves – can be so critical of writers and artists generally when they differ in opinion, or content, or taste or style or whatever.

    Thanks, Angela.

  54. " But I realise now, she had made no such pact with me, nor with anyone. The pact was of my making, and it was one sided."
    I love this and think it is a great piece of insight. We are perceiving the world based on our past experiences and we see, read and explain thing from our own perspective.
    Therefore a writer can never please everybody and should just continue to stay true to themselves.

  55. the basic difference might be that i don't consider myself as a photographer.
    i just found through this creative activity some peace… i am happy and flattered when my images move others, but i don't consider myself as a photographer( this is why i don't want to have a etsy shop or any other kind).
    i want to do it for me and freely. i like constructive feedback and inspiration.
    the only photos i would not publish are those of my friends who would like to stay anonymous, out of respect.

    as i said, i don't think i should have my word in a writer's debate anyway.

    my comment was just an instant reaction to your post.

  56. I have not read this entire comment thread (a book in itself), so my blathering may have already been discussed.

    You said, "Even as an autobiographer I prefer not to know where my writing will take me. I prefer to be surprised at what will come up for me. But in the process of surprising myself I might sometimes surprise my readers even more."

    I think this is the essence of good autobiography.

    No matter what approach you take to writing, some people will not like it. So be it.

  57. That seems to be the basic message from most commenters here, Marja, namely that a writer should be true to herself, write as she sees fit and know that she can never please everyone all of the time.

    Thanks, Marja.

  58. Elisabelle, I think you have as much of a say in a writer's debate as anyone.

    You are a reader after all and more able than many of us here in that you are bilingual, bilingual at least. It may be that you speak even more languages than french and English.

    I understand that you share your photographs for pleasure but the quality of those images deserves recognition. They are not simply what I call 'happy snaps', they have a clear artistry and aesthetic appeal to them. To me that makes photography your art.

  59. The issue of being able to surprise oneself through one's writing is one of the great joys of writing.

    I'm glad you see it that way too,Charlie. And as I've said earlier to Marja, most people agree – we can't please all of the people all of the time. We have to start with ourselves.

    Thanks, Charlie.

  60. Thanks for your support, Ocean girl. It's much appreciated.

    And thanks to you too, Elizabeth. Despite all my misgivings I try to take your advice, I try just to write, but every so often I go off on these tangents, particularly within the blogosphere in a bid to make sense of what some of these issues might mean. And also I like to establish whether and how these issues might resonate with others.

    Thanks again, Elizabeth.

  61. The vignette fitted the subject, it was in no way gratuitous because it helped concretise your idea of confession, thus fully communicating it. Writing's about communication, as far as I'm concerned, even if only with oneself.

    I've noticed that there is a bit of a trend for being offended, these days, and people can be offended by just about anything even the cheerily bland. So it seems pointless trying to please everyone.

  62. I'd agree Eryl, about the business of being offended by just about anything.

    I relate it to what the philosopher, Avishai Margalit describes as 'moralism, namely 'the disposition to cast judgments of a moral kind on what is unsuitable to be judged'.

    I notice a tendency for some folks within the blogosphere to apply moral judgments willy nilly, when others simply want to explore ideas.

    It's a case perhaps of political correctness gone berserk.

    Thanks, Eryl.

  63. I would certainly be interested in your posts about this topic, Elisabeth. Maybe that was where I was making my mistake: with the presence of your older siblings, I didn't see you as lacking the benefit of extended family, as were the children studied.

    Knowing such as the research that you posted, (I majored in psych way back when and heard a lot of this), I brought my own children up in the 70s, by John Bowlby. Not a popular attitude then, as now.
    You were obviously a very sensitive soul, Elisabeth, and had a cataclysmic reaction to this occurrence. Apologies for my insensitivities.

  64. I am astounded that you should be urged – wrapped up in whatever prose – to censor yourself on your own blog. Readers have a choice to not read. Can they accuse the writer if they stumble upon words or disclosures which do not sit comfortably with their own expectations, beliefs etc when they were happy to extract pleasurable insights previously?

    I salute you for your honesty and candidness and for writing your life as it is and as you see fit to tell it.

  65. Frances, I'd be happy to send you a copy of the paper I have written in which I detail John's story. I looked for an email address on your blog, without success.

    If you'd like to read more detail, please email me at 6thinline@gmail.com and I can pass the essay on.

  66. Thanks for your words of encouragement, Rachel.

    I cannot imagine censoring myself to the point of satisfying all my detractors.

    After a good conversation with a writing friend today, I have decided to concentrate on my writing – whatever form it takes – and resist worrying too much about offending some people. It's a thankless pursuit.

    Thanks again, Rachel.

  67. Indeed–it is dangerous–but as my brother Mark says, though 'tis so, if one has a writer's heart, it must be written.

    It is often a thankless job–but if it is your passion, the stories must be written.

    Have you ever read Precious Bane? It is a book written around the turn of the century, and it is so unexpected. So much of life, both bad and goodly in it.

    It's thoughtfulness reminds me of you.

  68. Thankyou for your most generous offer, Elisabeth. I would be most interested in what you have written.
    As I have only, as yet, a personal email, my children advise, (as I'm sure that yours would also), that I do not forward it.
    As I said, I was familiar with certain materials such as this, to the extent that I did not leave my children at all,day or night, until they were about 10 years old – people came quickly to accept that there was no social life with us unless my children were included. Years later, their children told me how they had heard the many ongoing parental criticisms of my attitude, but that they had always thought that I was right.
    However, now I am not so sure.

    The attitude towards, and treatment of children at the time of the Robertson's experiment , and later, was often very "wrong": certainly very different from what we would now think was usual, and certainly now no longer tolerated.
    Some of the single women, who were most – all? – of the hospital workforce at the time were sad, embittered people who saw happy carefree children as spoilt, and were determined to cure them of such. Themselves a lower part of the hospital hierarchy, they needed children to act in an humble and obsequious fashion, as the lowest. The reports of children hospitalised during these times record the nastiness and quite deliberate cruelty of some nurses. It seems very possible to me that John's trauma may have resulted from such, as well as the separation.
    Our understanding of children – or, at least, an acknowledgement that children are human with human emotions, has thankfully improved since then…slowly, reluctantly.

    I like to discuss such issues, Elisabeth. I am not here to disagree with you, but to exchange information and viewpoints.

    I certainly remember visiting in the 50s children in "homes" which were lauded in the media, but which chilled my blood to visit. And,even during the 60s, aboriginal girls were forcibly removed from their families and not allowed to remain in any contact with them, and this was all regarded as a good thing.

    Nowadays, I see women either forced to leave their babes in care, which is tragic, or informed by the media that it doesn't matter as much as holding their "career" – read "job" – does.
    How happy am I that I avoided that modern conundrum…and how happy, I assume, you are, that your mother avoided it also.

  69. Hi Frances
    Sorry I'm slow to respond to this comment. I'll send a link to a piece I wrote recently once it's available on line, that is if you can't forward me an email address, but as I said earlier you can email me offline safely at 6thinline@gmail.com.

    In the meantime, I'm grateful for all your comments. It is easy sometimes to misunderstand one another through the medium of emails and blogs. The written word can be far less forgiving than spoken speech.

    I need to remind myself of this all of the time. I'm one of the worst for misinterpreting what people can say, for feeling hurt or affronted when people actually mean well. Though they don't always mean well, and it helps to be able to make the distinction.

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